What’s a Salteña
Let’s start with the most important questions: what do salteñas taste like and how do you eat them? Salteñas have a subtly sweet, tender shell that encases a rich, savory stew filled with meltingly soft potatoes, olives, egg, Andean spices, and, depending on your order, chicken, beef, or quinoa. The stew’s broth keeps the filling juicy and hot and requires a technique to eat them without making a mess. First, carefully bite off the top. (It’s okay to nibble for this step if it seems hot.) With the top off, you can start slurping out the broth and gradually eat your way through the pastry down to the more substantial parts of the stew. We made a graphic to help you understand the process (scroll to the bottom of the page). As you enjoy the filling, you’ll find that the braided ridge provides a nice contrast and palette cleanser between bites of the rich and savory filling. Combined, the subtle sweetness of the pasty and the strong flavors of the savory interior, give salteñas a little bit of everything.
History and Culture
The fact that you can eat a salteña with no utensils helped make it Bolivia’s most popular street food. Over the years, the salteña’s importance has grown beyond the street, to the point that any meaningful discussion of Bolivia's cuisine should include the salteña. However, while the importance of the salteña is not in dispute, its origins are.
Salteñas’ story clearly dates back hundreds of years and most agree that it evolved from the empanada. (In fact, salteñas are sometimes referred to as Bolivian empanadas.) What’s less clear is exactly who invented it. Historian Antonio Paredes Candia claims that Jauna Manuela Gorriti created the first salteñas in the early 1800s. By Candia’s telling, Gorriti and her family were exiled from Salta, Argentina to Potosi, Bolivia. To support her family, Gorriti started selling her homemade “empanadas Argentina.” Gradually, Gorriti adapted her recipe to utilize the local ingredients and to align with local tastes. As the popularity of the sweet and savory pastries grew, the residents of Potosi began to relate them back to Gorriti’s birthplace of Salta, referring to them as “empanada de la salteña” (or “empanadas from Salta”). Eventually, people shortened the name to simply “salteña.”
In another book, Beatriz Rossells, claims that a 1776 manuscript contains a recipe for something similar to today’s salteñas. Rossells claims this indicates that the manuscript’s author, María Josefa de Escurrechea, is the true inventor of the salteña. Since the manuscript was written in Potosi, it supports Candia’s claim that Potosi was the birthplace of the salteña.
Perhaps both stories are true. Maybe Escurrechea brought an early version of the salteña to Potosi. Then Gorriti refined and popularized it. Regardless of who created them, salteñas have spread throughout Bolivia, with different cities having their own variations.
Netflix even recognized the popularity of the salteña in it’s Street Food: Latin America docuseries. (You'll have to watch the Bolivia episode to see the salteña footage.)
A Food Shaped by Its Environment
The salteña was shaped not only by the chefs that created it but by the cool weather of the Bolivian cities it originated in. With an altitude over 16,000 feet, Potosi’s average highs stay cool year round, ranging from 56°F to 65° F, with average lows from 25°F to 38°F. Bolivia’s capital, La Paz (pictured) is also quite high and cool — 11,893 feet above sea level. In this cool climate, the warm broth provides a welcome source of warmth. Plus, the broth helps salteñas stay warm longer than they would without it. Salteñas also rely on local ingredients like aji peppers.
Saya has worked hard to create an authentic version of the salteña and bring it to a new audience. We hope you enjoy! Visit our shop to order pickup or delivery in the Washington, DC metro area. For our hours and more details, jump to the homepage.