Saltenas – Traditional Bolivion Food
Countless variations of the empanada, a savory stuffed bread pastry, can be found across the world, but perhaps no region has the diversity of Latin America. Today we are headed to Bolivia to learn about their regional empanadas known as salteñas.
The humble salteña is widely considered to be the nearest thing Bolivia has to a national dish. A delicious blend of meat, vegetables, and egg in a rich sauce, it is truly one of the country’s finest treats.
WHAT IS AN EMPANADA?
At its simplest, an empanada is filling encased in a starchy dough. The word empanada literally translates to “wrapped in bread” (which basically describes half the food eaten in the world).
Even just sticking to those things actually called empanadas only limits the discussion a little bit. It does mean goodbye to Jamaican patties and cornish pasties, tchau to Brazilian pasteles, adios to Dominican pastelitos and orevwa to Haitian pâtés. It leaves the xianbing and baos of China, calzones of Italy, and Hot Pockets of the United States for another time.
But just looking at that list suggests how broad the spectrum of empanada-like foodstuffs is available around the world.
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF EMPANADA?
While empanadas are now more or less a form of hand pie, that’s not exactly where they came from. The Galician empanada from northern Spain, forebear of the current empanada that’s prevalent in Latin America, is a large two-crust pie baked in a round pie plate or rectangular dish. The yeasted dough exterior holds fillings that usually include bell peppers and onion along with a protein, commonly tuna or chicken. Sliced into individual squares, they start to look slightly more like the single-serving descendants spread throughout the New World, where early Spanish conquerors brought the dish.
Once it landed on the shores of Latin America, the empanada shrank to its current handheld size and adapted to local climates, evolving with every incoming colonizer. As it spread, dough variations lost the yeast, some morphing into a more pastry-style crust, cut with beef fat or butter (especially in the cattle-raising regions of Argentina), while others lost the wheat flour entirely: empanadas in Venezuela and Colombia are made with corn flour, and in Caribbean countries, yuca or plantain serves as the starch.
What’s inside divides empanada geography even further, with specific states often staking their claim to a specific style of beef filling (with or without olives, raisins, eggs, or peppers), while others focus on cheese or even sweets such as dulce de leche or guava. Finally, there is the greatest divider of empanada lovers of all: fried or baked?
No matter the stuffing or the style, the ubiquity and love for the empanada is not a difficult one to understand. An empanada is “cheap, easy to eat, and there’s just nothing foo-foo about it.” It’s the food of the masses, easily transportable, and versatile. You can stuff an empanada with just about anything.
While the character of the dough and contents may vary, basic empanada anatomy remains the same: delicious filling enrobed in bread. The Spanish word empanar literally means “to wrap in bread”.
WHAT ARE SALTEÑAS?
In Bolivia, the regional empanadas are known as salteñas, a generally forgotten reference to Salta-born Argentine Juana Manuela Gorriti. But what really sets the Bolivian version apart from typical empanada fare is the soupy filling.
The combination of crispy exterior and stew-like interior is achieved by adding gelatin (traditionally, beef bone marrow was used) to congeal the filling before stuffing the dough. The congealed filling melts slowly while the salteñas are baking, preventing the crust from becoming soggy.
Today, salteñas are as close as you can get to a national dish in Bolivia. It is one of the few foods that can be found throughout the country, with each region (and even individual families) having its own variation. Enjoyed as a mid-morning treat, salteñas feature sweet dough filled with a savory stew of chicken or ground beef, potatoes, slices of hard-boiled egg and pitted olives or raisins.
The pastries can be identified by their characteristic football shape and repulgue, a braid-like seam that runs across the top of the pastry, rather than the side. The dough is often a light orange-yellow hue due to the addition of achiote, a seasoning indigenous to the South American lowlands.
Because of the salteña’s succulence, the Bolivian specialty poses a particular challenge for the uninitiated diner. Utensils are typically shunned, and a seasoned salteña eater is able to consume the dish sans spoon without a drop of the juices dribbling down her arm. To enjoy a salteña like a pro, hold the pastry upright, nibble the top corner and sip the stew as you go. Serve with llajua, a spicy salsa typically made from native Andean peppers, and your taste of Bolivian comfort food is complete.
Salteñas have two main features that differentiate them from most empanadas. The repulgue, or the “braided” seam that seals the empanada closed, is placed on top. Also, these empanadas are baked in an upright position, rather than on their side and can be eaten any time of day. They are especially popular as a mid-morning snack and are easy to find from street vendors.
Typically, salteñas can be found in any town or city throughout the country, but each area has its variations. Cochabamba and Sucre claim to have the best version of this snack, and many will go out of their way to try the variation from Potosí. In La Paz, it is a tradition to enjoy salteñas as a mid-morning snack, although vendors often start selling salteñas very early in the morning. The pastries are sold anywhere from 7am to noon; most vendors sell out by mid-morning.
For The Filling
1 pound ground beef 95% lean meat (or 2 chicken breasts)
1 A packet of unflavored gelatin
4 cups beef broth
3/4 stick butter
2 tablespoons turmeric or Achiote – ground or in paste form – you can find this in the Hispanic aisle at most grocery stores –
1 onion finely chopped
3 Large potatoes Diced
1 cup peas
1/2 cup parsley finely chopped
1/2 cup granulated white Sugar
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
**Optional – 3 Hard Boiled Eggs Olives, Raisins
For the Dough
4 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
1/2 Cup Sugar
1 Stick of Butter melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups of boiling hot water
1-2 teaspoons of yellow food coloring.
For the Filling
Cook the diced potatoes in boiling water until cooked, but still firm.
Melt the Butter together with the Achiote or ground turmeric until well combined and incorporated.
Add the Onions and the Diced Potatoes and Season everything with the Cumin, Salt, Pepper, and Oregano.
Add the Peas and the chopped Parsley and mix well.
Add the Sugar and continue cooking for a couple of minutes.
Add the already cooked and seasoned ground beef and stir well.
Add the Beef Broth and Bring to a boil.
Add the packet of unflavored gelatin, stir well, and remove from heat.
Transfer to a large bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 hours (overnight is best, but not necessary).
For the Dough
Combine the Flour, Sugar, and Salt together in a large mixing bowl.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the yellow food coloring (this is to get the traditional color of the Salteña, which is actually obtained by adding a natural colorant that is only found in Bolivia).
Add the Eggs Mixture to the Flour Mixture and mix until well combined.
Add the hot (almost boiling) water to the mix and knead until a large, yellowish ball of dough is formed (it should not be too sticky, so add more flour if necessary).
Let sit for about 10-20 minutes and then separate into smaller, more workable pieces.
Roll out each piece on a flour surface and cut into large circles (about 6 inches in diameter and about 1/8 of an inch thick)
How to Make the Salteñas
Preheat your oven to 500 degrees
After you have rolled out a piece of dough to the indicated size, add a slice of hard boiled egg to the middle (an olive and raisins if desired) and about 1/4 cup of the filling (more if you are not adding the other filling ingredients).
Wet the edges of the dough, and fold over the top, pinching the edges together.
In order to ensure that the Salteñas do not open during the cooking process, pinch and twist the edges to form a “braided look.” (This was the hardest part for me, so they don’t look perfect, but just do it enough so that you create a strong seal).
You can also beat an egg and brush the Salteñas with it right before baking to get a shinier look.
Place on an aluminum foil lined baking pan, right side up, and bake for 15 minutes or until browned.
Let sit for at least 10 minutes and then enjoy.