by Patricia Park
I never knew empanadas were not Korean until well into adulthood. My father’s sisters would make over one hundred of them each year for the holidays; whenever they appeared at the Christmas dinner table, I had always assumed they were oversized mandoo, that Korean leftovers catch-all of a dumpling. (It was only when the Latino empanadas craze of the mid-2000s hit the Lower East Side that I realized my mistake, how embarrassing.)
If one food had to sum up my family’s heritage, it would be those Korean empanadas. I’ll save the trouble of making overwrought and vaguely racist literal comparisons (tawny yellow skin, hard shell exterior), in favor of highlighting its actual contents, a culturally-confused mix of spicy ground beef, cellophane noodles from the Asian grocery store, and Spanish olives, wrapped up like a hot-pocket.
Both sides of my family are Korean by way of Argentina. My father, three of his four sisters, his two brothers, and his parents emigrated by boat from Pusan to Buenos Aires at about the same time my mother, her three brothers, and her parents were embarking on the same journey. They would first meet in New York City through a matchmaker and—single Koreans being so rare in those parts, in those times—were married two months later.
My family’s recipe for escaping 1960s militaristic Korea to Miguk, that literal “land of the beautiful,” was as follows:
Step 1: Offer gifts of whiskey and cigarettes to government official. Praise nobility of said official’s lineage (opt.), while slipping envelope under table. Obtain necessary paperwork.
Step 2: Embark via boat from southern tip of Korea to Argentina. Duration: 60 days.
Step 3: Apply for visa. Repeat Step 1.
Step 4: Establish residency in barrio Once. Work textile factory job. Beg jefe for green card.
Step 6: Purchase round-trip pyo to JFK. Stretch truth to immigration officer. Upon arrival, discard return portion of ticket.
Step 7: Dodge INS. Open fruit and vegetable stand. Cram for U.S. citizen exam. Pass U.S. citizen exam. Open bigger fruit and vegetable. Repeat as needed.
The recipe for Korean empanadas is a little less precise, the ingredients a little looser; perhaps it’s an embodiment of our family’s newfound freedom here in America…or more likely that my aunts will not part with the specifics of their recipe para nada.
Recipe for Korean Empanadas:
-Goya empanada discs (10 small discs per package). Thaw to room temp.
-Hardboiled eggs, sans the yolk, cut into cubes
-Cellophane noodles (available at Asian supermarkets)
-Green olives, chopped
-Jalapeños, chopped (opt)
-Lawrys Seasoning Salt (you can also use Adobe, but it has MSG so our family has switched over)
-Raw egg (for wash)
*Feel free to add or substitute your favorite fillings: spinach in lieu of parsley, ham or ground turkey in lieu of beef, etc.
Step 1: Sauté onions, parsley, olives, and (if using) jalapeños. Set aside.
Step 2: Sauté beef; be sure to break it up into pieces in the pan. Season with Lawry’s.
Step 3: Boil cellophane noodles. Once cooled, chop into two-inch pieces.
Step 4: Mix all above ingredients together. Allow to cool.
Step 5: Stuff heaping spoonful of mix onto empanada disc. Fold over into half-moon shapes and seal ends with egg whites. Use fork tines to crimp ends and seal.
Step 6: Heat vegetable oil and fill pan halfway, at medium heat.
Step 7: Place 3-4 empanadas into pan, flip when brown. Repeat.