The World’s Favorite Savory Pastry

by Sarah on June 20, 2010


Where ever they traveled, it seemed the Spaniards could not live without their empanadas, a savory pastry stuffed with everything good. From the Iberian Peninsula empanada’s popularity proliferated across the culinary world, vestiges of Spain’s golden age.

It is interesting to see how a name becomes linked to a certain food while other times, it is discarded for something new. With the flexibility of language these pies also became known as Jamaican pies in… Jamaica, pastels or pastelillos in Puerto Rica, bourekas in Cypus, calzones and impanata in Italy, samosas in India, aloo pies in Trinadad and sambusac in parts of the Middle East. Empanadas are found as far as the Philippines, remnant of Spain’s 300 years of rule in the country.


Sambusac vender in Ramle shuk

In Israel they are known as sambusac which are baked or fried and sold from street stands or bakeries. They are most often stuffed with chickpeas or cheese and a legacy of the Iraqi Jews.

The Jews from North Africa, originally descendents from Spain brought another type of savory pie to Israel. These are known as pastelim or pastalicas and share the same linguistic roots with pastelillos but are prepared differently. Israeli pastelim are essentially the same as briouats and made from Moroccan warka sheets, sheer dough which is first cooked before using. This dough is also used for the famous Moroccan pigeon pie known as pastilla or bastilla (as Arabs do not pronounce the P).

According to Clifford A. Wright the Latin pastillum is a diminuitive of panis, bread. Or perhaps the word comes from pasta,  from Latin which translates to dough or pastry cake.

The Middle Eastern sambusac was the original ancestor of all savory pies. This culinary tradition was brought to Spain during the Muslim conquest and spread from there as empanadas. As the savory pastry made its way across the New World, recipes evolved, names where dropped and changed. But one thing stayed the same, in one form or another, the savory pies stayed on the list of favorite foods the world over.

bastels, sambusac

Bastels-Syrian Savory Pie

This savory pie is based on a recipe from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck. This pie is not moon shaped like empanadas, but round to distinguish them from cheese filled pastries. This was often done to avoid eating meat with milk for those observing kashrut or Jewish dietary law. Because of Arab pronunciation, pastels became known as bastels in Syrian. I was left with extra filling in this recipe, which can be added to rice or frozen for later use.

1 large onion, finely chopped

1/2 kg (1 pound) ground beef or lamb

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted


2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup semolina (smead)

1/2 teaspoon salt

125 grams (2 sticks, 1/2 pound) margarine (or butter), cut into chunks

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

About 1/2 cup of cold water

Sesame seeds for decoration

1 egg, whisked

For the dough

Combine the butter, salt, vegetable oil and two types of flour and mix in a food processor until the consistency of sand. Add the cold water, a little at a time until the dough combines. You may need more or less depending on how much the flour absorbs. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerated until ready.

For the filling

Fry the onion until golden in olive oil. Add the meat and cook until the color changes, breaking lumps with a fork. Continue cooking the meat until it begins to brown in its own fat. Add the spices and toasted pinenuts and mix well. Let cool. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F


Take a lump of dough the size of a walnut (about 30 gram or 1 ounce). Using your thumb and index finger make a hole big enough to fit 1 tablespoon of the filling. Mold the sides so they are thin but do not fall apart. Cover the opening by squeezing the sides closed with wet hands. Alternately you can flatten a very small piece of dough and use that to cover the opening.

Brush the top of each pastry with a little egg wash and sprinkle sesame seeds on top. Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden.


Delights from the Garden of Eden, Nawal Nasrallah

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Nisrine@Dinners & Dreams June 20, 2010 at 6:09 am

Very informational post and delicious pastry. Great to know Moroccan warqa is sold in Israel.


Michelle June 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

Those look delicious. I will have to try them sometime. You can use the filling and stuff chicken legs and thighs or potato flour crepes.


Yael the Finn June 21, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Greetings from Helsinki!
Very interesting to learn about the origins of empanadas. Even here in Finland we do have some kind of variation of that, which probably came from the Russians….


Sarah June 21, 2010 at 9:44 pm

piroski! I almost forgot about them. They truly are delicious.


Sally - My Custard Pie June 24, 2010 at 4:14 am

…and where do Cornish pasties come in?! Love the pics of the dinky little pies – so cute, so tempting.


Sarah June 24, 2010 at 4:36 am

thank you, seems like you can write a book about savory little pies, I am sure there are lots more of them, not only piroski and cornish pastries:-).


OysterCulture July 11, 2010 at 3:38 pm

What a great recap on one of my favorite foods. Loved the overview and the recipe sounds amazing.


Nada January 4, 2014 at 8:34 am

I just discovered this blog coming from Paula’s Moroccan food page and I just love it..Amazing work!


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