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.
What is the story behind salteñas?
Historian Antonio Paredes Candia states that during the early 19th century, Juana Manuela Gorriti was the first person to create the current version of this product. This lady later married Presidente Manuel Isidoro Belzu. Gorriti was born in Salta, Argentina and was exiled to Potosí, Bolivia during the Juan Manuel de Rosas dictatorship.
The Gorriti family endured extreme poverty, and they came up with the recipe in the early 19th century in order to make a living. A variation of these pastries was known at the time throughout most of Europe.
The product, nicknamed salteña, became very popular. Candia states that it was common to say to kids: “Ve y recoge una empanada de la salteña” (“Go and pick up an empanada from the woman from Salta”). In time, most forgot the name Manuela Gorriti, but not the nickname. Eventually the salteñas left Potosí and became a Bolivian tradition.
It’s important to note that the salteña is easily distinguishable from other empanadas on the continent, of which there are many. Almost exclusively eaten in Bolivia, the salteña is oven baked and has a hard crust in a distinct bulging shape with a flat bottom. Inside are the usual fillings of beef or chicken, hard boiled eggs, and veggies such as peas or carrots. Not to mention the sweet, sometimes spicy gravy that really sets this empanada apart.
How to make salteñas
The key to it is in its preparation. The recipe is a strict one, so any wrong move means it is not fit to be called a salteña; it is notoriously hard to create.
First, the filling is made, combining potatoes, the shredded beef or chicken, herbs, spices and seasoning (with plenty of pepper) in a stew, which is then left to simmer. The picante version also features aji, a pepper which gives a spicy kick. After it is cooked, gelatin is mixed in as well, allowing the jigote to set.
Next, the dough is created for the shell, with flour, salt, butter, and water. Once this mix has become a nice, soft, stretchy dough ball, it’s divided up for the individual shells. A spoonful of the hardened mixture is placed in each shell (with an olive and an egg for good measure) which is then folded over, and the edges scalloped for the signature look. It is then brushed over with beaten egg yolk for the finish and placed in the oven to bake.
As the salteña bakes, the gelatin works its magic. The heat, whilst cooking the pastry shell, melts the gelatin, so, what remains when it is withdrawn from the oven, is a crispy shell, filled with the meat and vegetables, swimming in the rich sauce. You will not want to waste a single bite. In fact, in competitive salteña eating, spilling one drop means losing the contest!
You can freeze salteñas (unbaked) as long as they are very well wrapped. When you want to bake them, place them immediately from the freezer to the oven – do not thaw.
Now I am sure after reading all this, you want to run to the kitchen and whip up a batch of these delicious Bolivian empanadas!
This recipe is validated by our Bolivian culinary expert, Lizet Flores de Bowen. You can find Lizet on her bilingual food blog Chipa by the Dozen.
- 1 lb beef , diced finely
- 5 cups beef broth
- 2 sheets gelatin (flavorless)
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- ½ red bell pepper (or yellow), grated
- 1 chili pepper , chopped
- 6 boiled potatoes (firm consistency), diced
- 2 white onions (or red), finely chopped
- 1 small bunch flat parsley , chopped
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 6 oz. cooked peas
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- 2 hard-boiled eggs , coarsely grated
- 10 black olives (pitted)
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 4 cups flour
- ½ cup butter , melted
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- ½ cup water (more or less), with ½ tablespoon of salt dissolved
- 1 tablespoon ground achiote
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat and cook the onion, bell pepper and hot pepper for 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add the gelatin sheets to 4 cups of hot beef broth and stir.
- Add the beef broth with the gelatin to the Dutch oven and stir.
- Bring to a boil and add the meat, cumin and oregano and stir. Cover and cook for 15 minutes over medium heat.
- Remove from heat and add the parsley, peas, cooked potatoes, pepper, salt and the remaining beef broth.
- Stir well, cover and cook over low heat for 2 minutes.
- Pour the stuffing into an airtight container and set aside for 8 hours in the refrigerator. This will allow the gelatin to sufficiently solidify the stuffing to be able to stuff it easily in the dough with a spoon.
- At the end of these 8 hours, add the hard-boiled eggs and olives and mix well.
Mix the flour, sugar, butter, and achiote in the bowl of a stand-mixer.
- When the dough becomes homogeneous, add the egg yolks and knead for 1 minute.
- Gradually add the salted water.
- Knead for 5 minutes until obtaining a smooth and firm dough.
- Preheat the oven to 500 F.
Roll the dough to ½ inch thick and, using a cookie cutter, form circles of about 4 inches in diameter.
- Place a tablespoon of gelatin filling in each circle of dough, fold in half and moisten the edges all around with water.
- Join the edges by pinching and twisting the edges to guarantee a strong seal. It is very important that the salteña sealed is very well.
- Place the well-spaced salteñas on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Mix the egg yolks, milk and sugar and brush the salteñas with this mixture.
- Reduce the temperature of the oven to 450 F, and bake the salteñas between 8 and 12 minutes.
- Serve hot.