Empanadas are a dime a dozen. You’ll find them hawked from food carts, homemade to order, or sold by nationwide chains. These half moon-shaped turnovers are usually fried (sometimes baked), and encase a variety of meats and other fillings.
But there’s a rarer, more sophisticated kind of empanada that traditionally hails from Malolos, Bulacan, with the intriguing moniker of kaliskis or fish scales. And it’s this elusive empanada that seems to have gained new life during the pandemic. Bulakeña-at-heart, Chef Pixie Rodrigo Sevilla, may have something to do with it.
Empanada kaliskis uses a dough that is layered, somewhat akin to a croissant—although even more tedious in technique, says Sevilla—giving it its fish scale-like exterior and amping its delicate flakiness to balance its rich fillings. It used to be called empanada de Malolos, the chef offers, until acclaimed food historian Mila Enriquez of Bulacan renamed it empanada de kaliskis, after the fish scales its many layers resemble. Sevilla recently took on the challenge of making these handmade delicacies from her Quezon City commissary.
A distant relative of Enriquez (“my maternal grandmother’s sister-in-law”), Sevilla is no stranger to empanada kaliskis, given her proud Bulacan pedigree. Her maternal grandmother Lola Med Rodrigo is the daughter of Colonel Vicente Enrique, the right hand of General Gregorio del Pilar. Lola Med’s husband, Senator Soc Rodrigo, is related to both Gregorio and Marcelo del Pilar.
A trained chef and food stylist, Sevilla has always had a nostalgic streak, coupled with a strong sense of family and regional pride. She bakes beautiful cakes and other pastries, including her “throwback” Pastel de Amor cake, via Forget Me Not Specialty Cakes.
She revived her family’s heirloom brazo de Mercedes recipe (named Brazo de Remedios) and innovated modern variants for her La Brazorria de Lasevil mall-based kiosks. She also offers Bulacan pastillas, both classic and flavored, through her Miel’s Pastillerie brand.
Since the pandemic started, Sevilla decided to take on what may be her biggest challenge yet, the empanada kaliskis. They’re tedious to make, requiring several days of preparation, and involving lots of muscle and sweat.
“In my 20 years of making cakes and pastries, it is only now that I’ve developed calluses in my hands. My wrists are starting to ache too,” shares Sevilla. It’s no wonder so few people make this pastry in commercial quantities. But Sevilla seems up to the challenge as she shares with ANCX why she thinks it’s worth all those bumps on her hands:
What makes the empanada kaliskis from Bulacan so special?
With regular empanadas, you just make a flaky dough and roll it out. But with this one, the kaliskis dough is made in different stages, then the forming is also in different stages, and it is fried not baked.
The “scales” not only make the appearance prettier, but they also add crisp and flakiness to the pastry. If the folds in a chef’s toque represent how many ways he knows how to cook eggs, the folds in the kaliskis would be a symbol of all the hours and days spent in making a perfect one. It takes patience, hard work, and love for this tradition to carry on.
What are your earliest memories of eating empanada kaliskis?
I would go with my family to Bulacan during All Saint’s Day. An old lady carrying a basket would always sell to us. Having a big family, we would wipe out her stock. I remember eating about two in one sitting. I would even take home an extra one to be eaten in the car. This empanada wasn’t branded but definitely homemade because the kaliskis wasn’t uniformly made and the oil would be dripping on my hand. The chicken filling was well seasoned and had raisins. (But I was a strange kid, I liked raisins!)
How did you learn how to make it?
I learned a little from older relatives, but since no one was really there to teach me every day, I took a few lessons here and there. Then I also just applied a few techniques that I learned from my culinary education. I guess it was a mix of tradition and curiosity. My mom would always tease me that it was my Lola Med in me manifesting. Deep inside, I am a Bulakeña and an old soul, someone once told me.
What makes the process so tedious and difficult to master?
To make it for the first time was fun, but to make it very often really tests your endurance and physical health. I tried so many ways to produce it faster and simpler, but the handmade ones are always far superior to the machine-finished ones. It is something you cannot do in a rush or last minute.
It should be done at a steady pace, never hurried because that affects the layers, believe it or not. Pag minadali, the dough seems to be more compact, maybe because you tend to apply more pressure as you roll when under stress. So the layers don’t come out gracefully spaced and formed. It also takes time for your hands to perfect that feel of the dough that will give you perfectly layered, rather than flattened scales.
It takes us about 2 to 3 days to make each batch, especially since we make the filling from scratch too. I don’t know where I get the energy to do it because I also have cake orders. But I manage with my daughter Miel and my staff May assisting me.
What made you decide to sell empanada kaliskis during quarantine?
I didn’t plan to sell it because I know that it is hard to make. As a business person, I didn’t think it was worth the time. Then my cousin asked me to make a batch for her mom, since traveling to Bulacan wasn’t possible due to ECQ. I gave the extra pieces to close friends and family kasi sayang naman. Then those friends and family started ordering, and then the people they gave them to ordered na din. From five dozen empanadas every Saturday, it became 20 dozen every Wednesday and Saturday.
How did you come up with the different flavors?
I started with the traditional chicken with raisins, then I had very enthusiastic customers who started suggesting filling options. I decided to produce new flavors to be able to reach out to younger people who don’t like raisins. Now I have four flavors: traditional chicken, Asian pulled pork, Pinoy beef taco, tuna ala king, plus a new one coming out very soon which is my tribute to my late father. He used to love empanadas and curry too. Ayan, hint!
You also involve your daughter Miel in making the empanada?
Since she has Bulakeña blood, I wanted her to learn it. I took her to Malolos before to buy empanadas a few times. Now she knows everything. She started by filling and forming the empanadas. Then I taught her how to make the dough. Now she is in charge of making the chicken and tuna filling. She also helps in packing the empanadas and labelling the boxes. The only thing she can’t do is the frying because she is still scared. Yes, she wakes up early every Saturday to help me, and she stays up late with me to form the empanadas. But she gets paid because her goal is to buy a new laptop by next year! She is taught the value of money and the hard work and discipline that comes with it. She also learns something about her heritage. Kinikilig siya when someone acknowledges our empanadas. This gives her a reason to be proud of her family history. It’s also our way of bonding kasi we make kwento while making it.
What has been the feedback from customers so far?
My older clients, or the elderly relatives of my clients, always say that they’re reminded of the time when their lolawould make this for them or when their moms used to buy for them during payday. Some say that their lola smiled because of the empanada. One mom was eating an empanada but her kids were not minding it. But the moment they tried it, they wanted more. Some naman, it’s their first time to try the kaliskis and they loved it. So I’m happy that through me, they are made aware of this kind of traditional empanada. Often times the comments are connected to memories of Malolos, Bulacan. When my customers say that my empanada is as good as or even better, naiiyak na ako.
Is making empanada kaliskis worth all the hard work and extra calluses?
It is a dying art and in need of the next generation of makers, and I am glad that I’ve awakened curiosity for this kind of empanada and was able to give it a new twist. It’s like rolling out years of history. There is something sentimental with this product. It has a lot of depth. But I don’t want to grab the attention from the old ladies who still make them in Malolos. Just like them, I want people to know that I am trying to share our heritage and reintroduce the product to the modern market. I just want more people to be aware of it and to appreciate it like we do.
To order, message @forgetmenotspecialtycakes on Instagram or text (0945) 513-5391
Photos by Aina Sevilla