She got it from her mama. That’s right. The best empanadas in Argentina – as decided yesterday during the Fiesta de la Empanada at the Feria Mataderos – come from the Mendoza kitchen of María del Carmen Vicario (“Chacha”), inspired by her mother’s original recipe. Chacha, 59, beat out 14 other chefs from around the country and impressed a panel of top-notch judges that included Dolli Irigoyen, Pietro Sorba, and Martín Molteni.
Valeria Velázquez (43) from Tucumán came in second place; the Feria’s own Ana María Goyenechea (71) rounded out the top three. According to the Buenos Aires City government, more than 150,000 people descended upon the traditional fair and market to celebrate Argentina’s Independence Day surrounded by artisanal crafts and traditional dishes, though the highlight of the day was definitely the first inaugural empanada championship.
So what’s the secret to Chacha’s prize-winning empanadas? Onion sautéed in beef lard (yum), meat cortado a cuchillo – as opposed to ground – as well as hard boiled egg and green olives. And of course the dough *also* contained beef lard, butter, and some cornmeal (who would have thought?), making me wonder if Chacha really isn’t just Paula Deen with an Argentine accent. When interviewed by Clarín, Chacha said that her mother’s “incredible empanadas and bread” were her inspiration, though she brings her own experience to the kitchen as well.
Like so many women, Chacha got her culinary career to a very early start, helping out at home. Fast forward a couple of decades: working among the vineyards at the Zuccardi winery, she heard that its restaurant Casa del Visitante was looking for a dishwasher. And the rest, as they say, is history. “I got in and helped in the kitchen as often as I could, and a few months later they offered me an official position to take charge of the empanadas,” she recalls. It wasn’t long until she was able to tweak the recipe to include her own personal touches and tricks, earning her the title “queen of the empanadas” (which is now what I will aspire to be, one day).
What kind of sorcery does Chacha use to make the best emps around? It’s all about the masa, baby. That’s right. Put the issue of the filling aside for just a moment, and focus on the part that terrifies most any home cook: the dough. (Seriously, even if you say that you “make empanadas,” I’m 100 percent sure you buy the pre-made tapas at the supermarket because otherwise you’re a complete sociopath who enjoys suffering). “I incorporate the lard and the butter into the flour, then I mix it, I stretch it, and then I add a lot of cornmeal and fold it all together, to make it easier,” she says.
To ensure that it can officially be called an empanada mendocina, it has to be cooked in a clay oven, aka un horno de barro. In fact, if you eat a fried empanada in Mendoza, it’s technically known as a pastel, which makes no sense to me but let’s just go with it because Chacha is the champ and she makes the rules.
Congratulations Chacha, Valeria, and Ana María! You serve as yet another reminder that women are the heart, soul, and backbone of so many kitchens across the world, and that earning equal representation and recognition is more important than ever. We salute you.