USHUAIA (Argentina), July 1 — Empanadas — those crescent-shaped, crusted pastries filled with all manner of meat or vegetable fillings — are commonly eaten in Argentina and practically a national dish.
In Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina and known as the World’s End, a hot and flavourful empanada can bring warmth back to your bones given temperatures can fall to below 0°C in June, its coldest month.
Whether baked or fried, there’s something magical about eating empanadas at the end of the world.
Perhaps this is inevitable. There is something fantastical about walking around in a place where, if you were to go any further, you’d be in the ocean or reach Antarctica.
The sea, then, is what informs life in Ushuaia; it certainly is what feeds its inhabitants.
There is a profusion of eateries all around town offering seafood in myriad guises on their menus. Several restaurants focus on crabs, especially king crabs or centolla. Invariably these also offer empanadas with crab meat filling.
Such decadence, to bite into one of these rich pastries and to discover a trove of even richer crab meat within, particularly the sweet flesh of the king crab.
You can have empanadas any time of the day in Argentina. This is as true, if not truer in Ushuaia, where the biting Austral winds and bitter chill transform the humble empanada into a deliverance of sorts.
Its warm, buttery crust and its molten interior, if you ask the proprietor of the restaurant or café politely to heat it up for you, can make an empanada seem like the best thing you have ever tasted.
And perhaps it is.
The provenance of the empanada filling matters. Whilst meat, cheese and vegetables are common enough, it is seafood that is the star attraction this close to Antarctica.
We wander around Ushuaia’s elegant streets but they are surprisingly peaceful; barely any other pedestrians. Granted, Ushuaia is a quiet seaside town so the bulk of the action is closer to the pier.
After all, Ushuaia’s many restaurants must get their catch of the day from somewhere, mustn’t they?
When we arrive at the pier, we observe many ships and boats; more than a few are fishing vessels. This is how the fish, shrimp and crabs used for empanada fillings back in town arrive daily; any fresher and the chefs would have to do the fishing themselves.
We watch the boats and the activity at the pier for as long as we can stand the cold. If we wanted to see the seafood being brought in, however, we would have to have woken up earlier as the ocean’s haul comes in before sunrise.
Instead, we are content to enjoy the views we have. Is it a truism that fresh air and spending hours outside would make you hungry more often? It certainly feels that way, even if we can’t help but think if this isn’t vestigial remembrances from an Enid Blyton book from our childhood.
Time to have a coffee break then. We return to the town centre, walking uphill and assuring ourselves that our physical efforts shall be rewarded with — what else? — piping hot empanadas, hopefully right out of the oven.
We are in Argentina, we remind ourselves, we can have empanadas any time of the day here.
It doesn’t take us long to find a cosy looking café not far from the post office (where you can get an End of the World stamp on your letters, a kitschy but thoughtful touch). Unlike many other shops that specialise in fish or crab meat empanadas, there are plenty of non-seafood options here.
The lady behind the counter explains each type of empanada to us patiently. There is the traditional empanada carne, filled with savoury ground beef but also empanada carne picante which is spicier and empanada carne picada with sliced beef rather than ground.
These beef-filled pastries always have a braided edge, which reminds us of curry puffs back in Malaysia. The empanada pollo or chicken empanada, however, is folded to resemble the comb of a rooster, which is a neat way of identifying it.
Then there is the empanada jamon y queso — ham and cheese — which is shaped like a pouch while the empanada verdura is rounder and filled with vegetables, which in this shop means spinach and cheese.
It’s hard not to order one of each but with so many varieties, we wouldn’t have been able to finish them all, much as we would like to! One empanada carne picante, which turns out to be barely spicy for our Malaysian tastebuds, and one empanada verdura are just enough, especially with hot cups of coffee.
After teatime, we decide to continue walking around town, the better to burn off any excess calories from all the empanadas we have been eating. There is still so much to explore though the streets remain relatively silent besides the occasional passing vehicle.
Colourful murals adorn nearly every wall we walk past. From abstract designs to the grim faces of the former prison inmates back when Ushuaia was a penal colony. History imbues our every step.
There is a signpost that announces Antarctica is a mere 1,000 kilometres away while Madrid and Moscow are much farther at over 12,000 kilometres and almost 16,000 kilometres respectively.
The signpost also cheekily promises the World’s End just around the corner. Perhaps this is why there is a parade of penguins on the mural. Perhaps they are going that way too.
Or perhaps they are showing the way to the nearest empanadas!
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