If a culinary equivalent of a walking a tight rope existed, this would be it! Salteñas are a food that manages to have opposing flavors (sweet and spicy), competing textures (crunchy and brothy), expected and unexpected ingredients (meat and raisins) coexisting happily in perfect harmony in one handheld sized meat-pocket.
Almost every culinary culture has a version of a meat-pocket or empanada. What sets Bolivia’s apart is the incredible culinary achievement: a meat stew—which could be a pretty self-respecting dish on its own—contained in a sweet and crunchy crust. While most meat patties have dry fillings, Salteñas’ filling is juicy. Juicy as an au jus.
Impeccable timing is required to be able to get the dough to cook and get crunch enough to be able to hold the juicy filling inside before the expanding warm air inside and the moisture destroys the dough.
Salteñas take approximately 2 to 3 days to make. On day one, the vegetables and the rest of the ingredients that will go into the filling are prepped. About two dozen ingredients make up the filling alone, such as peas, potatoes, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, raisins, olives and your choice of beef or chicken. These ingredients are stewed and allowed to cool and left to rest for at least 24-hours in the refrigerator so the flavors have time to develop. At this stage, the filling looks like one of those jello salads that were popular in the seventies.
The slightly sweet yeast dough is made on day two of the preparation. After going through several risings followed by punch-downs, the dough is thinly rolled out in circles of about 8 to 10 inches round. They are then filled with about a scoop full of the filling which is fully cooked. Closing them and giving them their football-like shape is pure artwork. Watching a master salteñero make the trademark rope closing on the top is equivalent to watching a set of fingers doing culinary ballet. The combination of pinching and twisting the dough at precise intervals not only creates a beautiful finishing touch but serves a very critical function. As the Salteña bakes, the air inside starts to expand and put pressure on the closure. This type of closure allows the Salteña to remain sealed in order to hold all the juices inside.
Once the Salteñas have been filled, shaped, sealed, and egg-washed, they are refrigerated overnight, some cooks even freeze them. The goal is to bake the outer crust before the gelatin melts releasing the juices. They are baked in a screaming hot oven at approximately 450 to 500 F° oven.
Eating requires skill and it has it’s proper eating etiquette. Salteñas are a snack food that is traditionally eaten in two at a time between 7 AM and noon. They are best when accompanied by a cold Coca-Cola, or better yet a really cold beer. You have to flip the Salteñas over and see the side where the end of the rope was tucked under. Since there is more dough on this side, this is the side that points down and holds the juices as you hold it up right and carefully take a first nibble on the opposing side, being carefully not to burn yourself with the steam that comes out with the first bite. You can then scoop some of the juices and filling with a spoon and slowly eat through the dough. If you want to see a Bolivian cringe, take a spoon and attack a Salteña, breaking it and letting all the juices ruin the wonderfully crispy shell. Bolivians enjoy seeing this as much as a Frenchman enjoys having his mother tongue butchered by a foreigner.
Eating without spilling any of the juice is very big sport in Bolivia. Since Salteñas are very hard to make and very time consuming, they are typically not made at home, but eaten at restaurants that specialize solely in making them. A popular contest that is played among friends is using Salteñas to figure out who will pick up the check. You’ll notice that Salteñas are always served on top of a small paper napkin; this is to prevent you from hiding any evidence. Whomever spills as much as a drop of juice on their plate pays the check for everyone! Now, you are fully warned, don’t drop any juice on your plate when you eat a Salteña or be ready to foot the bill! It’s a delicious skill that takes many eatings to fully master. Are you up to the challenge?
Macarena Janninck loves to cook and loves to eat good food. She is the daughter of Bolivian parents, and had the opportunity to soak up the Bolivian flavors growing up in Bolivia between the ages of 3 to 13. She is currently taking a long career sabbatical to raise her two lovely boys in Northern Virginia. In 2006 she was able to fulfill one of her life’s dreams by getting “real” culinary training and graduated from L’Academie de Cusine’s Culinary and Pastry Techniques Programs.