The Salteña: Bolivia’s saucy take on the empanada
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. A remnant of Spanish colonization (and derivative of the Indian samosa, which came to Spain via the Moors), practically every Latin American country has it’s own take on this pocket pastry. 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.”
In Bolivia, the regional empanadas are known as salteñas, a generally forgotten reference to Salta-born Argentine Juana Manuela Gorriti. Gorriti, a feminist and journalist, is credited with originating the recipe while exiled in Tarija, Bolivia (though some question the veracity of this folk history). Children would commonly say, “Ve y recoge una empanada de la salteña” (“Go pick up an empanada from the woman from Salta”), and the salteña nickname stuck.
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.
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This bit of culinary ingenuity speaks to how well adapted the dish is to the challenges of the Bolivian climate. Before refrigeration was available, the pastries could only be made in areas where evening temperatures dropped low enough for the filling to thicken, such as the Altiplano, the vast Andean tableland averaging an altitude of 13,000 feet. One writer has even suggested that the salteña embodies the landscape of the Altiplano itself: dry highland mountain peaks surrounding the plateau’s saturated center that holds Lake Titicaca.
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.
Bolivian Empanadas (Salteñas)
Adapted from Allrecipes.com
Makes 16 salteñas
For the stew filling
- 1 (.25-oounce) package unflavored gelatin
- 3 potatoes, peeled
- 1½ tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 ½ pounds ground beef
- 10 ounces fresh or frozen peas, thawed
- 1 green onion, sliced
- ½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 4 tablespoons white sugar
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons aji amarillo (hot yellow pepper paste) (optional)
- ½ cup cold water
- 3 hardboiled eggs, peeled and chopped
- 1 (2.25-oz.) can sliced black olives, drained
- 1 cup raisins, soaked in water and drained
(Tips for vegetarian filling are included below.)
For the dough
- 6 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup white sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup butter, cubed
- 1 ½ cups hot water
For egg wash
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 teaspoons water
- 1 tablespoon paprika
Make the filling
- Sprinkle the gelatin over ½ cup cold water in a heatproof dish; set aside for 10 minutes. Microwave the rehydrated gelatin for 30 seconds or until melted (or melt over a pot of simmering water). Transfer the melted gelatin to a small bowl and refrigerate until set.
- Place the potatoes in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil over medium eat. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are cooked but still firm, about 10 minutes. Remove from water; allow to cool, and shred into a bowl; set aside.
- Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion; cook and stir until onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook until the meat is no longer pink, breaking it up into crumbles as it cooks, about 10 minutes. Drain excess grease. Stir in the shredded potatoes, peas, spring onion, parsley, 4 teaspoons sugar, 2 teaspoons, paprika, cumin, salt, black pepper, and hot sauce. Simmer filling until hot, about3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Make the dough
- Combine flour, ¼ cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cut butter into flour mixture with a knife or pastry blender until the it resembles coarse crumbs.(If using a food processor, pulse butter and flour mixture until it looks like cornmeal.)Slowly add the hot water and knead until smooth, about 3 minutes.
- Keep dough covered with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel to keep it warm. Divide dough into 16 pieces and roll into balls. Keep remaining dough covered while rolling out each round.
Assemble and bake salteñas
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). Lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll each ball of dough into a circle about 1/8-inch thick. Whisk the beaten eggs and 2 teaspoons water in a small bowl. Lightly brush egg wash on the edges of the dough circle. Place about 2 tablespoons of the filling on one half of the dough round; top it with about a ½ teaspoon of hard-boiled egg, ¼ teaspoon of gelatin, a few sliced black olives and some raisins.
- Fold dough over the filling. To great the braided seam: start at one edge of the half circle: fold a small piece of the dough (about the size of your fingernail) over the seam and press gently. Fold another small piece of dough over the seam so that it overlaps the first piece. Repeat until you have sealed the entire pastry. (You may also seal the salteñas by simply pressing a fork around the edges.)
- Place the salteña on the prepared baking sheet and continue with the remaining dough and filling.
- Whisk the paprika into the remaining egg wash and brush the salteñas with the egg wash mixture.
- Bake in the preheated oven until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Notes: For a vegetarian option, try plant-based gelatin and replace meat with ground meat substitute or try this recipe for mushroom meat. A helpful photo for creating the traditional seam is available here. Unbaked salteñas can be frozen as long as they are very well wrapped. Do not thaw the pastries before baking.