I showed up at the chef Carlos Gaviria’s apartment in Bogotá, Colombia, fully expecting to bite into something surprisingly delicious, but I did not expect to have my mind blown.
Earlier that month, he had invited my family via Instagram direct message to cook with him during our most recent trip to my wife, Adri’s, native Colombia.
The chef, a professor of food studies at the University of La Sabana, is the author of two scholarly books on Colombian cuisine. The first, “Técnicas Profesionales de Cocina Colombiana” (Professional Techniques of Colombian Cuisine), is easily the most in-depth guide to the country’s regional cuisine I’ve ever read, while the second, “Arepas Colombianas,” is a deep dive into the variations of corn cakes, the country’s staple food.
That surprisingly delicious thing came in the form of a simple fried arepa made from freshly milled dough, with deep corn flavor and crunch. But the part that left me speechless was the secret ingredient that provided that extraordinary taste and texture: popcorn.
But, before we get to that, let’s talk about the dough, the element that makes a truly great arepa or empanada — just I would argue as the key to a great taco is the tortilla, or a great pizza is in the crust. In Colombia, that dough is often made with masarepa: corn that is parcooked, dried and ground into a flour.
Masarepa is enticing. All you need to do is add warm water, knead it a touch, let it rest and you’ve got masa, ready to shape into arepas or empanadas. I’ve spied bags of P.A.N., the most popular brand in Colombia, in virtually every home kitchen I’ve seen across the country (and in a good deal of restaurants, too).
But the best masa is made from dried corn that is boiled and milled fresh (either whole kernel, or maíz pelao, corn that is treated with alkaline lime and peeled, known as nixtamal in Mexico). Unlike the uniform quality of masarepa, the texture of freshly milled corn is coarser and more diverse, resulting in masa that fries up with more surface area, more crunch and more corny flavor.
Mr. Gaviria’s popcorn revelation came when he realized that, while dried dent or flour corn may be difficult for an American like me to find, popcorn is readily available. So he tried boiling regular supermarket popcorn in a pressure cooker before passing it through a hand-crank grain mill and kneading it with a bit of water into masa. The flavor and texture was outstanding.
Surely, I thought to myself, this works only with Colombian popcorn. The corn varieties we see in the United States are different from those available in Colombia, and popcorn, while similar to the flint or dent corn typically used for arepas and empanadas, is a distinct variety.
When I returned to the United States, the first thing I did was order a Colombian-made hand-crank grain mill (Victoria brand, which you can find online for around $50) and try it out with standard American popcorn, straight from the grocery shelf.
To my delight, it worked perfectly, and we were treated to the best Colombian empanadas we’ve eaten outside Colombia.
Since then, I’ve tested this method using a few different brands of popcorn, with and without the pressure cooker. (To do it without, soak the popcorn overnight in enough water to allow for it to triple in volume, then boil it for about two hours, until the kernels are cracked open.)
I’ve also successfully formed masa by grinding the corn in a food processor. The texture is not quite as interesting as what you’d get from a grain mill, but it’s still leaps and bounds better than dough made from masarepa. Not that masarepa makes bad dough — I still keep a bag of it on hand for when Adri and I need our empanada fix in a hurry — but compared with freshly milled masa, its crispness is fleeting, its corn flavor shallow.
The only moderately tricky part, whether using popcorn or masarepa, is getting the water content right. After cooking the popcorn kernels, I drain them, grind them, then add water to the masa a few tablespoons at a time.
Kneading corn masa is a little different from kneading a wheat flour-based dough. Wheat flour forms gluten, the protein network that gives bread its chewiness and elasticity. Corn masa does not. That means that kneading masa is more like smearing, and less like folding and stretching. I place the dough on a cutting board, then press it with the heel of my hand, smearing it out, regathering it, and repeating. If you’re familiar with the fraisage technique used for making flaky pastry, you get the idea.
The dough is ready when you can form a golf ball-size mass and press it between two sheets of plastic into a circle about three inches in diameter, without the masa cracking or breaking around the edges excessively. (A zip-top bag with its sides split and a heavy skillet or small cutting board work well for this.)
Compared with a wheat-based dough, corn masa is, thankfully, easy to work with. It behaves much like Play-Doh. If you accidentally form a hole in it, no problem. You can squeeze it back together easily.
Empanadas can come filled with a variety of flavors: the tiny, half-dollar-sized empanadas de pipián of Popayán, served with a spicy peanut sauce; hefty empanadas de arroz in Bogotá, filled with rice and meat; or the most common variety, ground meat and potatoes seasoned with hogao, a cooked mixture of onion and tomato. Both the filling and masa can be made several days in advance, which makes day-of preparation as easy as stuffing empanadas, and frying them.
To fry, I prefer to use a wide wok. The flared sides keep your stovetop clean from spatter, and the wide shape gives you plenty of room to maneuver a metal spider or slotted spoon under the empanadas as they fry. A Dutch oven is your next best bet.
As with all fried foods, the best way to prevent burns is to lower the empanadas into the fryer with a slotted spoon, or if adding by hand, gently lower the empanadas into the oil, dropping them only when your hand is nearly touching the hot surface. Dropping from high up is how you end up with hot oil splashes on your arms.
In Colombia, empanadas are typically a street snack, and the best are fried to order and served immediately. I recommend cooking them only when you’re ready to serve, and taking a casual approach, letting everyone gather around the kitchen and eat them as soon as they are cool enough to handle.
Colombian food is not spicy by default, but at almost every meal you’ll find a small dish of ají, the Colombian Spanish term for both hot chiles and any sauce made with them. This version of ají is made primarily with cilantro, onions and chiles. As a general rule, ají tends to be soupier in texture than similar fresh Mexican salsas you may be used to. Vinegar or citrus juice are not uncommon ingredients, but it’s also just as common to see ají made with nothing but aromatics, salt and water, as I do here.
When I eat empanadas, I like to take the first little bite as-is, exposing the filling, then spooning in some ají and a little squeeze of lime before each bite. But before biting in, be wary of two things: The potato and meat filling will be hot, and the crisp crust may just ruin you for all other empanadas.
And to Drink …
Creaky conventional wisdom has it that you should choose wine regionally, from near to where the food originates. But when the palette of cuisines spreads far beyond the reach of wine production, that no longer holds. In a sense, that’s liberating. You can choose whatever you like without fear of transgression. (To be honest, you can do that no matter what the cuisine.) With this savory dish, I would opt for a fresh, lively red with little in the way of oak or tannins. California makes some terrific reds from the carignan grape that would work beautifully here. You could drink frappato from Sicily, Beaujolais, Bairradas from Portugal, inexpensive blaufränkisch from Austria or any thirst-quenching natural wine. For a white, try a dry Austrian riesling or a chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. ERIC ASIMOV