PASTELITOS: A Glance Into The Diversity Of These Tasty Meat Pies

Pastelitos, meat pies, empanadas, turnovers, beef cakes, little pastries, there are many different names for the delicious…well what even is it? What is this mouth-savoring food depicted above? There are many different names, definitions, and variations galore! Even those in the Latin community find it difficult to define such an amazing food, it truly just depends on who you are asking and where they are from!

Diversity In Just One Dish

With all the different types of fillings, types of dough, and even names it is clear how many different people from different places enjoy such a food! Some people may use a puff pastry (common amongst Cubans), some may use cornmeal (common amongst Colombians and Argentinians), and some may use flour (common amongst Puerto Ricans and Hondurans) to create the dough! Others may fill it with cream cheese, guava jelly, ground beef, rice, vegetables, fish, chicken, fruit preservatives and more! As we can see throughout time and different ethnic groups pastelitos become extremely diverse. Even cultures that are not a part of the Latin community like Senegal, a country in West Africa, also enjoy this delicacy!

The African Influence In New Spain

New Spain was founded in 1521, this included all of Mexico, Central America to Panama, and much of the West Indies. New Spain and West Africa began growing a well-established relationship due to the fact that imported labor grew in demand. Soon the human trade industry grew and most of these enslaved laborers came from modern day Senegal. As time passed, as the human trade system ended, West African communities (Mainly from Senegal) soon began to develop intimate relationships with those native to the area and began creating a new community. One mixed with Latin and West African culture! This is how even though Senegal is not a Latin country they still celebrate and enjoy originally Latin foods!

Displayed below is a historical recipe from the 1950’s from West African country Senegal.

“COCINA SENEGALESA.” Aissata Fatima N’Doye and Amy N’dao, 1950. Icaria Editorial (accessed December 1, 2022).

Translated to English the recipe reads: 


1/2 kilograms flour 

250 gr. minced beef 

2 large onions 

2 garlic cloves 

2 tablespoons tomato concentrate 

50 grams bread yeast (fresh)  

1 egg 

Salt, ground pepper, peanut or soft olive oil 

First, we will make the dough. In a deep dish we put the flour, make a hole in the center, and put in little salt, the yeast (previously dissolved with warm water), and the egg. We also add how ever much water you need. Mix everything until we make a ball-shaped dough, and continue working it until it softens enough. We let it rest covered and in a room temperatured place for about four hours.

During this time, we can prepare the filling. In a pan with the soft olive oil add the meat first and then add the garlic and onions, all well chopped, and leave it to cook until golden brown. Then add the bay leaf, tomato concentrate, and a little water. Season to suit everyone. Reduce the heat and stir until it has the desired consistency. When it is done, remove it from the fire and set it aside.

The next step, once the necessary hours have passed, consists of stretching the dough with a roller and cutting it into rectangular pieces that are wrapped around the meat. They will remain as a kind of dumpling. To close it we tighten the edges well with a fork and fry them in very hot oil. We serve the meat pies accompanied by ‘Cani’ sauce (this recipe is explained elsewhere in the book). 

My Attempt At This Delicacy

It should be said that I in no way whatsoever am a cook. I have no experience in the kitchen whatsoever and yet cooking this dish was a goal that I enjoyably accomplished. While I had a slight advantage of interpreting the recipe, I still came across some difficulties. Other than having to convert the measurements from metric units to imperial. It is common in recipes (especially Latin) to not specify certain measurements. Another thing was that in this recipe I had to create my own measurements for the salt, water, and even season it however I chose to according to the recipe. Despite this though I made the dough for the pastelitos as shown below.

Next I chopped the onions and garlic as the recipe said. Then mixing it in with the ground beef meat which is the filling.

After the filling was golden and the dough had settled, it was time to bring the two together! Resulting in the delicious pastelito!

Connection and Change Through Food

Researching, preparing, and even eating this food truly brought many memories. I remember times where as a child I would ask to help flatten the dough with my mother and grandmother in the kitchen, an experience my mother too remembered with her mother and grandmother. An experience that even my great grandmother could relate to as she used to tell me about it before her passing a year ago. A truly beautiful connection throughout generations. Not only has times changed but so has recipes! Including this one! For example take a look at this Senegalese recipe also for pastelitos but a little changed!

“Senegalese Pastels: Flavorful, Playful and Delightful: Tropical Foodies.”  2013 (accessed December 14, 2022).

From an increase to the amount of flour, to actual measurements of the salt, to even adding milk, season cubes, and chili peppers we can see how this recipe has changed in more recent times. Just goes to show that people are still interested and enjoying such a dish and making their own cultural adaptions to it!


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