Arguably the empanada is as much a part of Argentine culture as the asado or dulce de leche. There is a flavour for every occasion, it tastes delicious at any hour of the day, fills you up and fits snugly into the average hand. It is the ultimate fast food. I had heard talk of empanadas before coming to Argentina, and ever since arriving I have been on a quest to find the ultimate empanada. It is a question of personal preference, but for me, the ultimate empanada will have the correct pastry to filling ratio, a nice squishy pastry and, most importantly, will not, heaven forbid, be dry.
The ‘Epicurious Food Dictionary’ (‘for people who love to eat’) informs me that these “Mexican and Spanish specialities are usually single-serving turnovers with a pastry crust and savoury meat-and-vegetable filling”. Thought to have originated in Galicia, Spain, they are now all over South America too and have counterparts in the Italian calzone and the British Cornish pasty. Different regions of Argentina have their own traditional fillings.
You cannot miss Cümen Cümen, with its bright orange and brown shop front and interior it is a beacon to empanada hunters as they trudge along Borges, Av. Córdoba or Av. Díaz Vélez. Don’t be fooled by the flashy décor; although this is a chain with branches in Palermo, Barrio Norte and Caballito, it is a family run firm with corresponding values.
They place an emphasis on putting care into each artisanally made empanada, providing consistently high quality food made from trusted sources. They have made economic sacrifices to stay true to this promise and have been using the same suppliers since opening a few years ago.
Although you can sit and eat your empanada on site, the more popular option is delivery, which is free of charge within 25 blocks of the store. There are 22 flavours to choose from, the most popular being carne cortada a cuchillo, which contains ground rather than minced beef and hails from the north of the country. Other popular flavours include chicken as well as cheese and ham. The traditional choclo and capresse are on the menu, but there are also more unusual flavours to choose from such as roquefort, celery and nuts and mozzarella, pancetta and plum. Each empanada comes at the reasonable price of $4.20.
Ignacio, one of the owners was also proud to inform me that Cümen Cümen is said to be the pioneer of the ‘sausage, cheese and mustard’ empanada. The generous layer of mustard gives a nice kick to the ensemble. Another speciality is ‘Carne Cümen Cümen’ which has a different taste and is made from ‘carne matanza’ – a different cut of the meat. It has tasty gravy which satisfies the most important factor on my quest – I can confirm that the Cümen Cümen empanada is not remotely dry.
If you want a change from the traditional empanada, you also have the option of ‘Especiales Cümen Cümen.’ For $6.60 you get a larger tarta made from empanada pastry. There is a selection of vegetarian fillings as well as ham, cheese, tomato and egg. If you have any space left, choose from a variety of traditional Argentine desserts such as pasteles de batata o membrillo or empanaditas de dulce de leche. I particularly recommend the latter which are little empanadas filled with warm caramel dulce de leche.
So, is the quest over? Is the Cümen Cümen empanada the ultimate empanada? Certainly, the ratio of filling to pastry was good, and the pastry itself was a pleasing colour and of suitable squishiness. I did enjoy the gravy in the meatier empanadas and the gooey consistency of the cheese. ‘Cümen cümen’ means ‘good taste’ in the language of the Mapuche. The Cümen Cümen empanada is certainly a contender for the ultimate empanada and lives up to its name, but I am going back on the street, just in case!