‘La comida nos une’: A taste of Colombia in Central Virginia

Hispanic Heritage Month

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Since 2016, husband and wife duo Juan and Claudia Urrea have been baking empanadas from scratch as a way to share their Colombian cultural with local residents in the greater Richmond area.

The couple emigrated from Colombia in 2002. Inspired by family to unite communities through food, they opened a food truck in Roanoke, selling tacos and crepes, about 15 years ago. But when they moved to Central Virginia, Juan said that they wanted to create food truer to their culture.

“We realized we want to bring something original from us because in Colombia, there is no tacos,” Juan said. “We decide to bring the empanadas to Richmond.”

Claudia’s grandmother was in the restaurant business, as well. After she passed away in 2020, the Urreras poured even more into their Henrico County business, My Empanada.

They have had a storefront at 1421 Blue Jay Lane for several years. But the coronavirus pandemic changed the way their business operated.

Business owner Claudia Urrea packs up empanadas to fulfill an order. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

“The impact of the pandemic, it’s felt differently. While some people are working from home, homeschooling their children, making online orders, others has to go and work with the virus,” Claudia said. “Food is an essential part of their life, and I say, ‘Okay, we can do something and help people.'”

That’s when the Urreas began to work to expand access to their food. Their Colombian-style empanadas are now available at farmers markets throughout the greater Richmond area, as well as through online delivery. They also make frozen empanadas for customers to take home and bake as needed.

“What I wanted, in the beginning, was to bring to Richmond our culture, and what the best way is the food,” Claudia said. “The best way is to bring the food, and people know about our seasonings, our salsas and everything, and it’s — people respond very well to that.”

Traditional Colombian empanadas are made with masarepa (corn dough) and savory flavors before being fried. Although the Urreas have stuck with family recipes over the years, they said they began baking their empanadas after Juan ate too many of the fried kind and had a stomachache.

Other countries in Latin America have different takes on the traditional street food. In El Salvador, the crust of empanadas is often made with sweet plantains. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, empanadas are typically made out of a flaky pastry dough and deep fried. Argentinian empanadas can be baked or fried.

The team at My Empanadas prepares the fresh ingredients that will make up the filling of the empanadas. (Photo: Juan Urrea)

“My favorite part is talking with people, learning from people, talking with customers,” Juan said. “[I have] people from the U.K. telling me, ‘Hey, we eat the same thing. We call pasties.’ People from South America, people from Spain, from Europe, Italy — they have calzones — from Middle East, from Asia. It seems like it’s an item we all have, but that we didn’t know.”

Since opening the storefront in Richmond, Claudia has come up with new recipes inspired by Central Virginia. The RVA Empanada is made with chicken thighs, guajillo sauce and mozzarella cheese. There are also Breakfast Empanadas available — made with scrambled eggs and Mexican chorizo — as well as vegetarian, gluten free and sweet options — made with guava or Nutella.

The Urreas said that My Empanada is about going back to the roots of a culture and sharing it with others.

“[You] come to another place and you have to learn where you live, but you have to bring something to the community. It’s the legacy. You have to tell everybody where you came from,” Juan said. “La comida nos une [Food unites us].”

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