One of the best food finds on my recent trip to Texas was an amazing little fried empanada made from a corn-based dough. I couldn’t get the chewy-crisp dough out of my mind. I’d eaten enough of them to figure that Mexican corn masa was the dough. Ever since then, I'd been wondering how the gluten-free dough would work with a Southeast Asian dumpling filling. (I'd had a minor catastrophe with gluten-free potstickers a while back so it's something that I obsess about.)
We had an invitation to a friend’s house for dinner last night and I used that as an excuse to for a cross-cultural dumpling experiment. I felt brazen by Rebecca Caro, who recently made the empanada recipe from Asian Dumplings for her Latin food site, From Argentina with Love; she's also doing a giveaway of the book right now so enter if you don't own a copy!
Hey, if I suggest using a Mexican tortilla press as a shortcut for Asian dumpling dough, why not use the press on actual Mexican dough? In my cupboard, I had a small can of sardines in tomato sauce leftover from making a homemade version a while back. I decided to use the sardines for the spicy sardine puff (karipap sardin) filling in Asian Dumplings, page 129.
If you’re unfamiliar with that lovely filling, I assure you that it is NOT fishy whatsoever. There’s lime juice, ketchup, shallot and egg to soften the fishiness. I made the filling the night before so that I focus on the dough and shallow-frying the dumplings right before we had to go to Diane’s house.
Diane didn’t know what I was bringing but she had chilled a bottle of champagne. If you’re into wine and food pairing, bubbles are awesome with fried food! When I unveiled the empanadas to Diane, she promptly popped the cork and poured.
I explained that it was a Oaxacan empanada dough that encased a Southeast Asian canned sardine filling. Diane was born and raised in Fresno, California, but she’d been around enough to have an open mind and palate. She ate one and smiled approvingly.
As we were getting to ready to sit down for dinner, four empanadas remained on the plate. I asked Diane if I should put them away for her, and she surprised me with this reaction: “Don’t bother. I can eat those last four myself!” I suppose that signaled the success of my dumpling experiment.
Substituting other fillings: If you decide to use other fillings for this recipe, make sure it’s a cooked one (less moisture during frying) that is fairly well seasoned so as to go up against the heartiness of the corn. The potato and lamb curry puff filling (page 127) would be splendid; if you want a vegan version, use the instructions in the recipe introduction. The fillings for Filipino or Vietnamese turnovers would probably be good too.
One caveat that I have to make is that the masa dough lacks the tender richness of the flaky pastry dough. Don’t be expecting a similar dumpling. This is different but tasty, nonetheless.
Spicy Sardine Empanadas
For the dough, I used my go-to corn tortilla recipe, which is based on one from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen (1996), a cookbook filled with solid instructions.
Makes about 18
6 ounces (1 1/3 cups) masa harina for tortillas such as Maseca brand
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 plus 1 tablespoon hot tap water
Cool tap water, as needed
3/4 cup Spicy Sardine Puff filling (Asian Dumplings, page 129)
Canola oil, for shallow frying
1. In a bowl, stir together the masa harina, salt, and hot water. It will be crumbly. Cover with plastic and set aside for 30 minutes at room temperature. A little steam will form as it sits and rehydrates.
2. Work in the cool water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to form a smooth soft dough. Make it as soft as youcan without it sticking to your hands.
3. Roll the dough out into a thick rope. Cut the rope crosswise into 18 pieces. Flatten each piece into a thick disc, about 1/3 inch thick.
4. For each empanada, use about 2 teaspoons of filling, placing it slightly off center and then closing it to form a half moon. Press the edges together and seal well.
5. Use a saucepan, deep frying pan, or wok to fry in. Pour in oil to a depth of 1/2 inch. Heat to about 350F degrees and fry the empanadas in batches for 4 to 5 minutes, turning frequently, until golden brown. The empanadas lighten as they cool so go a little deeper in color with the frying. A crack in the dough won't harm things.
Other cross-cultural or related dumplings to try: