Salteñas and Tucumanas. Although these are demonyms for people from Salta and Tucumán, in northern Argentina, they’re also tasty street food snacks in Bolivia.
No one’s really sure how they got their names. Whilst Salta is famous for the best empanadas in Argentina (which I can personally attest to), these bear only a passing resemblance to salteñas from Bolivia. A salteña has a hard, baked pastry shell which encloses a stew-like mixture of meat, potatoes and other vegetables, with an occasional olive or piece of hard-boiled egg. Eating one takes some caution as the liquid tends to squirt out when you bite it. The trick is to bite the top off and then drink the broth before moving onto the solid parts.
I was told a story about their origin in which two brothers from Bolivia married two sisters from Argentina. When they moved back to Bolivia, the wives started cooking these meat- and vegetable-filled pastries and their business took off. People would say “Let’s go to the salteñas” and over time the word became associated with this style of empanada.
It’s a nice, convenient story but I doubt how true it is. Plus it explains nothing about tucumanas. What I do find particularly interesting is that it attributes the invention of a national icon to non-Bolivians.
Whilst salteñas are not to everyone’s taste (they have a sweet flavour as well as savoury, which I think comes from both the type of pastry and the broth inside), tucumanas are a little more conventional. They’re big, fried empanadas full of juicy meat and vegetables (and probably a piece of egg too). Sort of like a Cornish pasty on steroids (sorry empanadas, but ham and cheese is far too light a filling for me).
My favourite thing about tucumanas is the stuff that comes with it. Mid-mornings you’ll see people clustered around tucumana stands, spooning vegetables and drizzling sauce onto every bite they take. There’s escabeche (pickled vegetables), diced cucumber and tomato, peanut sauce, llajua (chili salsa), some kind of green and spicy sauce (which I’ve no idea what it’s made of, but is absolutely delicious!), as well as mayonnaise, ketchup and salsa golf (ketchup and mayo mix).
If you’re at all worried about hygiene, you might not want to partake of the vegetables; you serve yourself with a spoon from a big tub, and that spoon touches everyone’s tucumanas which have just touched everyone’s mouths as they chow down.
Where to eat:
The best tucumanas I’ve had are found at the corner of Calle Zoilo Flores and Calle Almirante Grau in the morning when Mercado Rodriguez is open at the weekends. They are always super fresh, fried before your eyes. They cost 5Bs, which is a little more expensive than others around town. Another good place is Calle Mexico, which is lined with portable food stands during the morning, throughout the week. Salteñas are sometimes sold from the same stands as tucumanas, other times they might be sold alone. The ones in Plaza Murillo are the freshest I’ve had. Often, if you see only a few left for sale, they may have been sitting there a while and have probably gone cold. Like tucumanas, they taste better warm.