Taste of El Salvador

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Last summer, I spent all the money I had saved working part-time at an ice cream shop in Cincinnati, Ohio on a passport and plane ticket to El Salvador. Our friend Danny had been living there for the last five years, working with kids in a gang-prevention program at Maria Madre de los Pobres in La Chacra, a marginalized community in El Salvador, so me, my brother Brendan, and Danny's brother Jimmy organized a visit.

I wrote a long-winded article about the whole experience and how eye-opening and life-changing it all was, but then my computer died. Looking back on my notes and photos, whether we were hiking in a volcano, meeting with anti-mining activists, touring a self-sustaining farm in the Bajo Lempa or just hanging out in La Chacra, one thing remained the same, our meals: pupusas.

Little pupuserias were everywhere, selling handmade and grilled stuffed tortillas. I probably ate over 30 of them in my 10 days there. As delicious and comforting as they were, when I returned to Cincinnati, I wasn't exactly craving them. I swore them off entirely after I spent my first week home trying to get my digestive tract back in order, which in hindsight has probably more to do with that giant bag of raw cheese or fact that our gracious host barred us gringos from eating any raw vegetables.

Last September, I said goodbye to cheap rent and the ice cream shop and moved to Brooklyn with my girlfriend. One chilly, late Summer afternoon shortly after our arrival, we were at Brooklyn Smorgasbord and–“Holy shit, pupusas!” I was jobless and broke, but absolutely could not pass up an $8 plate of pupusas. Being by the water, it was naturally cold and breezy, and by the time we sat down and dug in, the pupusas were cold. Sorry, but these pupusas were kinda boring.

Danny and I traipsing about a volcano in San Salvador. A week later, bodies were found dumped near the bottom.

“Yeah, you gotta be in the real deal El Salvador to get real deal pupusas, that's for sure,” Danny said in an email. “And they tend to run about 35-50 cents a piece. But they are the most traditional and popular Salvadorian food, and can really only be found in their natural and most delectable form in El Salvador. Other countries try to replicate them, but to no avail. Pupusas are a source of pride for Salvadorians, something that is distinctly Salvadorian.

“Pupusas are a staple of localized economics in El Salvador. In densely populated neighborhoods you can find them about every single block or so, if not more frequently. Sometimes there will be areas where there are whole clusters of pupuserias right next to each other, and people will go on pupusa tourism outings to try different vendors. Bean and cheese are the most common pupusas, but you can also get them with just cheese or you can get them with ayote (a squash-like veggie) and cheese, or you can throw in fried pig skin or fried pork in with the beans and cheese — that kind is called revueltas, which means mixed up. Also, you can eat them for dinner or for breakfast, but never for lunch. Nowhere in El Salvador could you find a pupusa at lunch time.”

Maybe it's the fact that trees are green again, or that the sun is starting to come out about once a week now, or that I need to make something with this goddamn leftover mozzarella after our homemade pizza sucked, but the pupusa craving has been hitting me hard recently. Either way, I set out to the store for some Masa Harina and got to work.

Most of the recipes I found online began with some romantic situation between the gringa housewife and her Salvadorian husband whom she wanted to please with some of his native fare. Most also produced dry and bland pupusas (no offense ladies hehe). I tinkered a bit and came up with this.

Pupusa Ingredients:
2 cups Masa Harina (do not substitute regular corn flour or corn meal. If unsure, find a bag with a tortilla recipe on it)
1 1/2 cups filtered water.
1 cup grated soft cheese. Quesillo, mozzarella, oaxacan or any self-proclaimed “mexican cheese” will work.
1/2 cup refried beans
3 tsp salt

Mix Masa Harina and water in a large bowl with your hands. If the dough cracks or feels dry, add more water; if it feels too wet, add masa. Some recipes call for kneading, which is entirely pointless because you won't be rising the dough. Once the dough is thoroughly mixed, pick off a handful a little larger than a golf ball. Slap it back and forth between your wet palms until it forms a patty. Place a generous pinch of cheese and beans in the center and fold the sides up to form a ball with the filling completely surrounded. Form into a patty again about a centimeter thick. Cook in a dry frying pan (or if you have a clay grill, let's hang out) over medium heat for about two minutes per side. Serve with curtido and tomato salsa.

Curtido Ingredients:
1 large cabbage, shredded
1 cup grated carrots
2 onions, finely sliced into long, thin strips
2 Tbs sea salt
1 jalepeno or chili pepper, minced
1 Tbs oregano

Seeing as how this is basically a Latin American saurkraut, follow the directions for saurkraut found here. Traditional curtido is soaked in pineapple vinegar and has flies buzzing all around the top of the jar, but this will do.

Danny poses begrudgingly with all the fixin's.

Tomato Salsa:

This is literally just a couple liquefied tomatoes and a pinch of salt. According to Danny, no pupusa is complete without the “weak, runny tomato sauce.”

Danny, who is now living back in Cincinnati and working on a book about his experiences in El Salvador, finished up his email by saying, “Pupusas are, for Salvadorians (and for those of us who have spent a lot of time in El Salvador), the most primordial comfort food. After initially trying them, you might get sick of them, but sooner than later you grow to love them, they become a part of you and you want them and must have them at least once a week, if not more frequently – depends how bad your addiction is. I know some people who eat them every single day. I'm more of a couple-times-a-week kind of guy. Or at least I was. Now that I'm outtie, it is without a doubt the food that I will most miss, and I will be going through withdrawal.

“The final point is that Salvadorians have dirty minds, and dirty slang. Most Salvadoran slang has to do with words serving as double entendres for male and female body parts. In this case, our beloved pupusa also means vagina. So go back through this text and read it again realizing that pupusa also means vagina and then you will have a very intimate glimpse into Salvadoran culture. Yes, pupusas are important and so is sex. The pupusa-vagina use is used by both sexes even. Men tend to use it to catcall women on the street, something like “Que rica esa pupusa, mamita!” And then, often times, women will joke amongst themselves that when they don't have anything to fix for dinner for the husband, they say they'll just give them pupusa and they all bust out laughing.”

For some of Danny's stories of marginalized youth in El Salvador, visit his blog.