Savory Salteñas Are the Comforting Bolivian Snack D.C. Needs Right Now

Laura Hayes reports for Washington City Paper:

Saya Salteña from Maria Iturralde launched earlier this month, offering pick-up and delivery.

Photo courtesy of Saya Salteña

There are consequences to mistaking a salteña for an empanada. The signature Bolivian snack resembles an empanada with its crimped edges, but if executed properly, the pastry should serve as a pocket for a savory stew.Maria Iturralde from D.C.’s Saya Salteña instructs newbies to hold a salteña upright and rip off a corner. From there you slurp the broth before finishing the tender pastry and savory filling.

“If you say ‘empanada’ people will bite into it,” Iturralde says. “There have been so many times people bit into a salteña and hot juice went everywhere. Think of the pastry as an edible cup.” 

Saya Salteña, which operates out of Mess Hall in Edgewood, sells five flavors of its namesake food—beef, spicy beef, chicken, spicy chicken, and vegan. Save for the vegan variety, each salteña is stuffed with ground meat, potato, English peas, hard boiled eggs, kalamata olives, and a mix of Bolivian herbs and spices. Some salteña makers, particularly in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, add raisins to the filling. Iturralde thinks they make the dish too sugary and excludes them from her recipe.

You can currently order freshly baked salteñas for delivery through Uber Eats, Door Dash, and new grassroots delivery platform DC To-GoGo from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily. Any orders placed after 3 p.m. will arrive the next day. Customers can also order fresh or frozen salteñas directly from the Saya Salteña website. Pick-up is available at Mess Hall.

Salteñas cost $5 each, but be sure to tack on a serving of llajwa, a Bolivian hot sauce, for 25 cents. It’s made from spicy Andean peppers and tastes good on everything from chips to barbecued meat. You can also build a meal with one salteña, a bowl of vegan peanut soup, and an alfajor shortbread cookie laced with dulce de leche for $11.

Iturralde moved from La Paz, Bolivia to D.C. to study engineering at George Washington University. While enrolled, she worked at the student center and found herself drawn to putting on events. She also rediscovered her love for cooking while living with her siblings. Upon graduating, Iturralde entered the catering industry. Five years ago she launched her own business—Creative Catering DC.

Like other caterers, Iturralde saw business dry up during the pandemic. Gatherings have been prohibited since mid-March. Having yearned to cook something more personal for a couple years, she launched Saya Salteña earlier this month. “You have to look at things as opportunities,” Iturralde says. “This is a perfect time. I can table catering and focus 100 percent on salteñas.”

It’s a labor of love that takes two days to complete. On the first day, Iturralde makes the filling known as jigote. It includes gelatin, which eventually turns to soup once the salteña is heated. “The trick is it has to set in order for you to be able to create that juiciness inside,” she says. “Then you do the dough so it becomes nice and pliable. The next day you have to build the salteña and everything by hand.”

To nail her recipe, Iturralde ate her way through the salteña stands that dot the streets of Cochabamba, where her husband comes from. “When I went to meet his parents before we got married, the first thing he said was ‘I’ll give you a tour of the salteñerias.’ We ate six that day. It was so good. If you go to Bolivia, you will not leave without tasting a salteña.”

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