A freshly baked batch of salteñas being pulled from the oven. Each salteña is made by hand, so hours went into crafting this tray alone. But, for Maria Helena, it's all worth it for the chance to share the food she loves.
Maria Helena, Saya’s founder and owner, moved from La Paz Bolivia to Washington, DC to attend George Washington University. While studying engineering, Maria Helena started cooking as a break from the demands of her studies. Maria loved these cooking sessions and sharing the food she created. Through these sessions, Maria Helena gradually realized that her passion lay in cooking, not engineering. So, after graduating, she took a big risk and gave up the safety of an engineering career to pursue her passion for cooking and sharing food.
A Cooking Dream Becomes Reality
Within a few years of graduation, Maria Helena had founded a successful catering business. While she loved catering, the menu most clients requested focused on upscale, traditional American fare. Maria Helena longed to share the Bolivian food she had grown up with. Specifically, she wanted to share the simple and unpretentious street food she had enjoyed as a treat while growing up. As a starting point, she started dreaming about bringing the salteñas she had enjoyed from Bolivian street carts to an American audience.
Salteñas are extremely labor intensive to make and require practice to perfect the intricate roping that visually distinguishes salteñas from empanadas and similar meat pies. Plus, tracking down the unique ingredients and adapting the recipe from Bolivia’s high altitudes to Washington, DC, just over 400 feet above sea level, was a significant investment. The obstacles did not deter Maria Helena. Whenever she could find time, she experimented with and tweaked her salteña recipe. She wanted something authentic, like she had enjoyed in Bolivia. Unfortunately, perfecting the recipe proved elusive because the demands of the catering business prevented Maria Helena from dedicating herself fully to the work.
COVID-19 Provides the Time to Launch Saya
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As regulations limited gathering sizes, Maria Helena’s catering business rapidly dried up. Rather than letting go of her cooking dream, Maria Helena decided it was time for another big risk. Using her newly found free time, she devoted herself to perfecting her salteña recipe. After countless batches, numerous tweeks, and input from family and friends, Maria Helena came to a recipe that perfectly captured the salteña as she remembered it.
With the hard won recipe in hand, Maria Helena launched Saya from Mess Hall, a culinary incubator in North East, Washington D.C. “Saya” is a rhythmic Bolivian folk dance with a mix of grace and power. In addition to being an alliteration, Maria Helena felt there was a connection between the dance and the crafting of the salteñas that fit the business perfectly.
Based on the positive reception that the salteñas received, Maria Helena expanded the menu to include several other popular Bolivian street foods, including the Huminta pictured above.
The positive reception customers gave her salteñas led Maria Helena to expand the menu to include additional Bolivian street foods. As with the salteñas, Maria Helena and her head chef put in the time needed to get the recipe just right. Today, Saya Salteña’s menu includes: cunapes, a soft cheese-filled pastry from western Bolivia that also happens to be gluten free; Sopa de mani, a vegan peanut soup; Singani cocktails; Huminta, Andean corn, Singani, Spicy Peppers & Cheese wrapped in corn husk and steamed; and, when they don't sell out, Chola sliders.
As the risks and commitment to her dreams begin to pay off, Maria Helena invites you to try a salteña. But be careful - contents are hot and juicy!
You can read more about Saya's story in the Washington City Paper.