November 3, 2016 – Extra Crispy
Every morning is a cold morning in La Paz. The capital of Bolivia sits in a steep-sided basin 12,000 feet above sea level—the highest peak in the Rockies isn’t much higher—surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains and the flat expanse of the Altiplano. The sky is the kind of blue that gives its name to my favorite flavor of sno-ball, but that never quite materialized in the hazy Mid-Atlantic, where I grew up. Clouds are so close overhead that you can match them to their freeform shadows as they drift uphill. In La Paz, you often feel as though everything is uphill, the altitude working like a weight on your ankles, your lungs, your head. It can take days to stop feeling tired here, whether you’re a visitor stopping through or a resident returning from a more richly oxygenated sojourn somewhere closer down to earth—which is anywhere at all.
It makes sense, then, that La Paz’s signature dish is the salteña: a warm, crisp pastry filled with stewed meat and soup, the love child of empanadas and xiao long bao, the perfect shape and size to cradle tenderly in your palm like a warm cup of coffee. And given that La Paz was, until fairly recently, a total culinary backwater, it also makes sense that that dish is named for another city entirely.
The salteña takes its name from the city of Salta, a pretty colonial town of pastel church towers set among the dry hills of northwestern Argentina. According to a prolific Bolivian historian called Antonio Paredes Candia, the salteñawas invented in the early 19th century by an Argentine writer and progressive political activist called Juana Manuella Gorriti, at the time still a young woman. Born in Salta to a wealthy, leftist family (her father signed the Argentine Declaration of Independence in 1809), Gorriti was exiled, along with most of her family, under the right-wing dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas to the city of Tarija in southern Bolivia. In Tarija, Candia claims, the Gorriti family fell into poverty, a condition that young Juana ameliorated by inventing a soup-filled empanada. Before long, local mothers would send their children out for empanadas “de la salteña”—from the woman from Salta.
While living in Tarija, Gorriti married Manuel Isidro Belzu, who, in 1848, became Bolivia’s 14th president (he was assassinated seven years later), Gorriti’s real badassery only kicked off after her separation from Belzu in 1842, at which point she moved to Lima, established herself as a prominent journalist and feminist thinker, hosted a fashionable intellectual salon, founded a school for girls, and served as a battlefield nurse when the Spanish bombarded the city in 1866 (she was awarded the Peruvian government’s highest honors for her bravery). In a career like that, inventing a national dish is hardly even a footnote.
Whether or not Candia’s claims about the salteña’s provenance are accurate, the dish has, over the course of 150 years, become a breakfast staple across Bolivia, and particularly in its mountainous western half. In La Paz, street vendors appear as early as 7 a.m., wheeling out glass cases of homemade salteñas.
My favorite salteña shop—a place called Jomiman in the mid-city neighborhood of Sopocachi—opens every morning around 8:30 and serves roughly 100 salteñas each day, running out around 1 p.m. The sign out front advertises the owner, Don Angel’s, decades of experience (coming up on three) with a big a picture of a lovingly pleated salteña pierced with a red and white straw. Inside kids nibble gingerly at the crispy tips while adults lick soup off their fingers.
La Paz is always close to the sky. With a salteña in hand, it also feels pretty close to heaven.
- Yields: 25 salteñas
For the wrappers
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ lb lard
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoon achiote (this ingredient gives the dough its signature yellow color. Since you probably won’t find it, you can substitute 2 tablespoons turmeric powder or a few drops of yellow food dye)
- 1 cup warm water
- Heat the lard until just melting, then stir in turmeric to incorporate. This step will give the dough its characteristic yellow color, but it’s not strictly necessary.
- Mix the flour salt and sugar. Mix the lard into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal (a punto arena, or to the point of sand, in the Spanish—which is very pretty, no?)
- Make a volcano of the flour-lard mixture and gradually add warm water, roughly a cup, and knead vigorously until you have a uniform dough. You’ll want to knead this for a while until the dough is fine, elastic, and doesn’t crack when you roll it out.
- Once the dough is ready, fold it into a roll and cut it into balls, roughly a fistful each, and leave them to rest, covered with a towel, until the next day. These should be big enough that they’ll roll out into rounds of a little under ¼” thickness and 6” in diameter when you prepare them the next day.
For the filling
- 3 medium white onions, minced
- 8 tablespoons neutral oil (or ½ cup butter)
- 2 tablespoons red or yellow chili powder
- 1 tablespoon cumin powder
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 2.2 lb (1 kg) beef loin, chopped into small cubes, about 1 square cm
- 4 cups chicken or beef stock
- 1 ½ lb starchy potatoes, peeled, diced, and boiled for about five minutes
- ¼ cup sugar (adjust to taste)
- 1 envelope flavorless gelatin (in Bolivia, this is 42 g)
- 1 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
- ¼ lb raisins
- 1 tablespoons Mexican oregano
Note: For a more flavorful soup (and even more complicated recipe) you can also use a beef foot and boil it slowly for about six hours to render all of its collagen and add that in place of gelatin. This is the more traditional way of doing, but also harder to regulate.
- In a large stew pot, heat the oil (or melt the butter) until hot but not smoking, then add the chopped
- Add the meat and stir until lightly browned, then add the stock and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the meat is cooked through and tender. When the meat mixture is nearly cooked, add the potatoes, and stir, leaving to cook for another minute or two. Once the meat is cooked (the potatoes should still be just short of finished), stir in the raisins, oregano, and parsley.
- Add the gelatin, stir in completely, then remove from heat. Cover and refrigerate overnight. The gelatin should set the broth in the mixture as it cools.
- The next morning, wake up and preset your oven to high heat, somewhere around 500°F (300°C—or as hot as you can get it). Remove the dough from the fridge about 30 minutes before you’re ready to start making the salteñas. You still want the dough a little cool when you start handling it.
- Roll out the rounds of dough to a little under ¼” thickness and 6” diameter. Place a large spoonful of the set filling in the center. (Other common additions: a single pitted olive and a little wedge of hard-boiled egg; these are optional, but delicious).
- Wet the edges, fold over and pleat carefully, making sure to seal completely. The idea here is for the gelatinous broth to melt in the oven, so it’s important that the salteñas not open or leak. The traditional pleat is a pretty, rolled edge that runs down the top of the salteña. As you make the salteñas, it’s worth returning them to the fridge to keep the filling cool and solid right until you put them in the oven.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the salteñas pleat-side up. Brush each with beaten egg and bake for 8-10 minutes at 300°C (this is 572°F; if your oven only hits 500°F, bake them 15 minutes). It’s normal for the pleat to char slightly, turning almost black, but the rest of the wrapper should be burnished and golden.
- Remove from the oven and leave to sit for 5-10 minutes. The finished product should have a firm, sturdy shell with a bit of crunch— like the outside of a good biscuit—and should hold together as you eat. The filling should be hot, soupy, and, ideally, a bit of a mess.