October 2014

Salteña: Food of a Nation

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. But it is not just the taste that fascinates. Behind it, Patrick Hebbert discovers the story of the Argentinean woman who first made them, and a strict, difficult cooking process. It has, however, become a significant feature of Bolivian culture, and inspires a great love in all who try it.

By: Patrick Hebbert
Projects Abroad Volunteer
West Yorkshire - United Kingdom

Photo: Patrick Hebbert

My first salteña sits on the plate in front of me. Golden brown, with a dark seem burned along the edges, it seems strange that something so small is the one thing I’ve been told to try whilst in Cochabamba. I have ordered the picante (spicy) one, and after the first nibble it seems to be just pastry, but the corner I have just broken off reveals a delicious surprise. Inside lies a fine mixture; beef, vegetables, egg, raisins, even an olive, all coated in a sweet tasting sauce, with just the right amount of spiciness. It is a mess to eat, of course, and table manners have to be thrown aside. Juices drip down the sides, on to my plate. The sauce is rich and filling, giving off an incredible aroma of spices, whilst the pastry provides the perfect savory balance to the taste. Spooning out the rest of the filling, and finishing the last of the pastry, my thoughts immediately go towards ordering another. It’s easy to see how the salteña has become so popular; it is the perfect way to fight 10AM hunger.

This morning snack is an important part of the day for many Bolivians and is sold by vendors and restaurants across the country. Though most places will have their own twist on it, the basic recipe consists of a filling (or jigote) of meat, vegetables and sauce, wrapped inside a baked pastry shell. It is a food that is recognizable all over the world and one of Bolivia’s favorites. In fact its popularity is so great, that most sellers find that they have run out by noon!

My first Salteña
Photo: Patrick Hebbert

The Bolivian salteña, stands apart, not just because of its strong flavours, but also the history behind it.

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 the taste 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, to spill one drop is to lose the contest!

Photo: Patrick Hebbert

Bolivians love it, and a quick search online will show you just how fiercely loyal they are to salteñas. Countless recipes are out there, many from migrants abroad, wanting to recreate a taste of home. Beneath the instructions, others leave comments, giving enthusiastic thanks for the means to cook their favorite food.

Whilst it is clear how highly regarded it is, the salteña‘s origins remain somewhat mysterious. A form of empanada, the design itself will be no stranger to many. The empanada originated in Spain and Portugal, and the idea of a pastry casing for a mixture of meat and vegetables swept through many places in Europe (in my native England our version is known as the ‘Cornish Pasty’). It was brought to Latin America by the Spanish conquest and, from here, spread across the continent, gifting each nation its own version of the snack.

Orti's, an award winning Salteñeria in Cochabamba
Photo: Patrick Hebbert

The Bolivian salteña, however, stands apart, not just because of its strong flavours, but also the history behind it. Though a definitive story may never be completely known, there does seem to be a generally accepted version of events. It is the story of Juana Manuela Gorriti, one of Latin America’s lesser known heroines, which, strangely enough, beings in Argentina.

According to www.elhistoriador.com, Juana Manuela Gorriti was born in 1816. She was the daughter of Jose Ignacio Gorriti, a soldier and politician, and a member of a wealthy Argentinean family. They lived in the northwest region of Salta and had a strong belief in their liberal politics, particularly in their support of the Unitarians. At the time Argentina was under the rule of the dictator, Juan Manuel Rosas. He ruled the country fiercely, and persecuted any political opponents, particularly the Unitarians. The Gorriti family were then forced to flee further north, eventually taking refuge over the border in Tarija, Bolivia. The family suffered greatly in exile, and was left extremely poor. To make money, Juana decided to sell food, specifically the empanadas from her homeland. She made a stew of beef or chicken, mixing in egg, potatoes and various spices, before wrapping it all in a pastry shell, and the salteña was born. Its popularity grew in Tarija, with the local children famously told to “go and get a empanada from the woman from Salta,” and it is from this its nickname became, ‘salteña’.

After her marriage to future Bolivian president Manuel Isidro Belzu ended, Juana went on to become a feminist author, journalist, and teacher in Peru. She was also a nurse for the wounded when the Spanish navy attacked the coast of Peru and Chile, receiving the Second Star of May for her efforts. She eventually returned to Argentina, where she is remembered with great pride.

Though her name has slightly faded into history, the salteña Juana sold during those desperate first years in exile has endured and conquered the country. It is a testament to Bolivia’s love affair with the salteña that time has not altered the recipe, and the jigote found in the 1800’s is the same as what you would find in one today. This morning snack is an important part of the day for many Bolivians, and long may that continue.

Nineteenth Century Popular Paintings in Cochabamba
According to art historian Teresa Gisbert, and as mentioned in her text ‘Bolivian Art of the XIX Century’, popular religious painting developed during the War of Independence and was consolidated after the founding of the Republic in 1825, at the same time as the removal of most religious orders through a resolution dictated by José Antonio de Sucre in 1826.
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