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Jonathan Gold on Saltenas 

Tracing the origins

Thursday, Mar 10 2011
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Dear Mr. Gold:

Salteñas are called that because they are the empanada style of the province of Salta, squarely in Argentina. Sure, they eat them elsewhere, but calling them Bolivian would be like saying that Tex-Mex music is kinda from Arizona!

—Gustavo T., down the hall and three offices to the left

Location Info

Dear Gustavo:

I've never seen salteñas in Argentine restaurants, and they are the one food everybody associates with Bolivia, but I defer to your patriotism and superior knowledge.

You would think the presence of salteñas at the Argentine restaurant Empanada's Place right around the corner from the Weekly might have tipped me off. Even if they are translated as "Cheesy Spicy Beef.''

But come to think of it, they taste nothing like the salteñas I know, which are bigger, sweeter and typically come without cheese, but with a payload of raisins, olives and hard-boiled eggs. The Bolivian ones are juicier too, viciously juicy, almost like the South American equivalent of xiao long bao.

A lot of sources seem to indicate that the recipe was originated by novelist and patriot Juana Manuela Gorriti. She was born in Salta, and her family supposedly supported itself while in political exile across the border in Bolivia by selling the pastries in the town of Tarja. Gorriti's nickname was supposedly "la Salteña,'' the girl from Salta, thus the name. The story sounds rather too pat — it's like ascribing Ring Dings to the kitchen of Washington Irving, or spaghetti to Marco Polo. (Although Thomas Jefferson did in fact introduce french fries to the United States, so there is precedent for this sort of thing.)

Gorriti was married at 14 to a future president of Bolivia, wrote her first novel before she was 18 and spent a lot of her time raising children, liberating Peru from the Spanish, inventing the Argentine novel and whatnot, so it's hard to see where she would have had the time to also invent the salteña. Maybe it was created in her honor, like Peach Melba, or Dolly Madison cake.

Then again, Gorriti did write a cookbook late in life — a cookbook that includes several empanada recipes, but nothing resembling a salteña. This probably brings us right back to the Bolivian salteñas at Beba's Restaurant. You're the porteño with the Ph.D. in English literature. You tell me.

BEBA'S RESTAURANT | 6024 Hazeltine Ave., Van Nuys | (818) 786-1511

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