17 May


Across Latin America, a wide variety of foods served in pocket form have been part of fast food culture for years.  In Colombia and Venezuela, you’ll find corn arepas stuffed with a variety of ingredients including ham, cheese, and even chicken.  In Argentina and Chile, the empanada reigns king, stuffed with everything from lamb to beef, cheese, seafood, and vegetables.  Mexico has the quesadilla, and even the tlacoyo, always oozing with cheese and sometimes fresh vegetables like squash flowers, peppers, and more.  In Bolivia, though, from the heights of La Paz to the steamy lowlands of Santa Cruz, it’s the salteña that has people’s hearts, and with good reason. For the sake of simplicity, you could just as well refer to a salteña as an empanada.  It’s fresh dough, typically stuffed with stewed beef, olives, onions, and perhaps even some raisins and a hard-boiled egg, sealed up, baked, and served warm.  Past the obvious comparisons to an empanada, though, salteñas function on their own level of incredible.  Equal parts sweet and savory, and sometimes with some added chiles for heat, the salteña is its own breed of stuffed pocket heaven, down to the last drop of juice that’s just waiting inside. What’s more is that eating a salteña requires its own set of instructions, for which we’ve included a short video below.

Let’s take a look inside the salteña to see just what makes it so special.

Salteñas At Los Castores | Santa Cruz, Bolivia


 Sweet Dough
Although you can find similar (but not the same!) fillings across South America, what makes the salteña unique is the dough.  First and foremost, it’s much thicker than a typical empanada dough, made so to contain the juices that result from the cooking process.  Typical fillings include beef or chicken stewed with onions, resulting in a filling that is dangerously moist, and requires a keen knack for eating without making a complete mess.  Salteña dough is also much sweeter than a typical empanada, similar to a tart or other flaky pastry.  The pockets are brushed with egg whites before baking, resulting in the typical black seam for which salteñas are known.

For years, the standard was a salteña filled with chopped beef (never ground), stewed with onions and garlic, and spices including cumin, pepper, and salt.  At most any salteña stand, you can find carne dulce, carne picante, or carne súper picante (sweet, spicy, or super spicy beef).  Traditionally, salteñas also include half of a hard-boiled egg, as well as black olives with pits, a nearly identical filling to Chilean empanadas de pino.  Don’t be fooled by the picante tag, as even the normal picante isn’t that spicy.  Jump up to the súper picante, though, and you’ll get a good dose of chiles.

Chicken salteñas are also available, in sweet and spicy, though beef remains king.  Other varieties are starting to pop up, too, including vegetarian salteñas and fricasé-filled versions, though in a society where meat and potatoes is still the standard, you’ll have to dig a little deeper if you want something out of the ordinary.

Perhaps the most important part of the salteña is the process of eating one without ending up looking like a toddler covered in meat juice.  What makes the filling so unique is the overwhelming amount of juice contained inside, which requires a very specific set of instructions for consuming.  In the video above, Santa Cruz native Jorge Calvo takes us through the specific method of eating a salteña, from the shake, to popping the cap, to ending up with a plate that should have more crumbs on it than juice.

Whether you’re hungry for breakfast, lunch, a midday snack, or perhaps even a late night necessity after a few hours of partying, the salteña is sure to satisfy.  Just be sure and remember that the filling is juicy, and your shirt is just waiting to get stained.

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