Saltenas (correctly spelled salteñas with an "enye" - your browser may eliminate the squiggle above the "n") are about as typically Bolivian (and as unique to Bolivia) as you can get when it comes to food. I don’t know of any other country where they are a part of the customary local diet. They are addictively delicious!
These small pastries filled with meat or chicken, vegetables, boiled eggs, olives and other delicious ingredients, are actually a typical food from the Western Andean region of the country, but of course, since absolutely no one can resist them, they are now an important part of the national diet, so much so, you could actually say they are a typical Bolivian custom. Why? Because it has become a sort of tradition throughout the entire country to enjoy a salteña or two around 10 a.m., a sort of snack (or brunch for those who didn’t eat breakfast before they left for work in the morning). You can find a salteña recipe here.
They are in fact, so popular that entire restaurants are dedicated exclusively to serving them, which is why I had to dedicate an entire section just for this as well. Throughout the cities you’ll see salteñerías (bakeries that specialize exclusively in saltenas) and also many
(salones de té) and
(pastelerías), which don’t necessarily specialize in saltenas, all brimming with people. Sidewalk
will fill to capacity, all for one small delicious stew-filled pastry.
You can also order in quantity ahead of time by calling the salteñería and picking them up at a specified time. But don’t over-purchase. Salteñas don’t freeze well after they’re already cooked. They actually don’t even refrigerate well. They are really juicy inside and when they’ve been sitting around for a while or are frozen, the juice seeps into the dough and they dry out. In fact, that’s why you won’t want to buy a salteña in the afternoon at any bakery either because they’ve most likely been drying out.
My favorites, personally, are the fricasé (pork) salteñas with picante. Most salteñerías in Santa Cruz do NOT serve them (beware, because they are spicy hot, I mean REALLY spicy hot!) You’ll find these mostly in Western Bolivia (where you can also find beef, charque and even llama salteñas). In Santa Cruz, although they are also available, you’ll more commonly find people don’t eat very much spicy food and prefer chicken salteñas or beef but not spicy.
So for a truly Bolivian experience, you just have to include a trip to a salteñería at least once while you’re here. For the best flavor, look for a deep yellow or almost orange dough with a nearly black (burnt) trim just on the top. The dough should be SLIGHTLY sweet, the inside should be VERY juicy and drippy, not dry.