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.
Photo by Michael Snyder
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 salteña was 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.
Photo by Michael Snyder
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.
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.
For the wrappers
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ pound 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
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 5/24 pounds (1 kg) beef loin, chopped into small cubes, about 1 square cm
4 cups chicken or beef stock
1 ½ pounds 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 pound raisins
1 tablespoons Mexican oregano
How to Make It
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.
In a large stew pot, heat the oil (or melt the butter) until hot but not smoking, then add the chopped