Our friend, and Adrienne’s coworker, Ben recently traveled to El Salvador as an official election observer. He came back with enlightening tales about the devastating history of the country and its efforts to move forward. Along with the history lesson, he came back with this delicious recipe. It’s a little difficult on the first attempt, but, like all worthwhile endeavors, it’s significantly easier with each try. Because Ben is the expert, we’ll let him walk you through the pupusa-making process
Colombia and Venezuela both rally behind arepas, Honduras hawks baleadas while Ecuadorans hold fast to their llapingachos, but the pride of El Salvador is the savory pupusa. Invented centuries ago by the indigenous Pipil people of El Salvador, pupusas are basically pre-Columbian hot pockets made with masa harina, a type of corn flour ground from hominy, which is in turn created by soaking the maize in a mixture of water and lime. This process softens the kernels and yields niacin, an essential nutrient that isn’t bio-available in untreated corn.
Interestingly, when corn became a staple crop in parts of Europe and other parts of the world, people didn’t initially see the benefit of the Mesoamerican means of preparation. This, along with the unbalanced, heavily corn-based diets of the poor, caused epidemics of pellagra, a nasty condition caused by niacin deficiency (image search not recommended). In the southern U.S. during the first half of the 20th century, pellagra affected millions and caused an estimated 100,000 deaths before the exact cause was discovered, thus rendering mute a chorus of deniers both shamed by its socioeconomic implications as well as enamored with sexier vector-borne hypotheses. The eventual discovery finally ended the public hysteria caused by its purported infectiousness, as well as a whole scattershot of bizarre treatments that included the use of arsenic and strychnine, partial appendectomies, and electroshock therapy.
Keeping this history in mind, we stuck with the traditionally-prepared corn flour: not just to avoid heinous skin lesions and dementia, but also because this process improves the flavor and makes it easier to form a workable dough. However, you might find the latter assertion hard to believe as your frustration yields more creative obscenities than finely formed pupusas.
Our pupusa playlist starts off with the right geography, but quickly drifts to the south…
- Lito Barrientos – “Cumbia en do Menor” – A really fun example of Big Band Cumbia by one of El Salvador’s most famous bandleaders. If you have any affinity for this, you should check out some of the comps on Soundway Records, who are re-releasing some of the outstanding Discos Fuentes recordings. In the 60s and 70s Discos Fuentes was often heralded as Colombia’s Motown or Stax Records, with an ace house band and a signature sound.
- Pescozada – “Anarquia” – An El Salvador Hip-Hip group that eschews the typical bravado and bling in favor of sociopolitical content. I am new to this band, but I felt they were much more apropo here than my first impulse to include Puerto Rico’s Calle 13, who are also worth checking out.
- Sabu Martinez – “Choferito-Plena” – Sounds of the Congo via Cuba taken from Sabu’s 1957 album that explored music with roots in the syncretic Palo religion. It is delightfully hypnotic, jazzy, and exotic.
- Lucha Reyes – “Como Una Rosa Roja” – My Spanish teacher once excitedly told me that my love for Lucha made her happy because it was the music of her grandmother. Despite being even more of a geographical departure from El Salvador, you’ll find this Peruvian national treasure better than anything Pizarro plundered. The style is Vals Criollo (aka Peruvian Waltz), which stirs Spanish, African, and indigenous influences into its 3/4 time signature.
- Los Mirlos – “Sonida Amazonica” – Since we ventured into Peru already, here is some classic Chicha (aka Peruvian Cumbia). With its surfy-psych blend of Andean and Colombian ingredients, this one is a real trip.
- Toto La Momposina – “El Pescador” – Owing to her Afro-Colombian and indigenous heritage, Toto’s music traverses the many folk styles that she has spent a lifetime researching, uses traditional instruments and featuring the inimitable voice that has earned her international acclaim and two Latin Grammies. This is her cover of a well-tread classic by José Barros.
- Ana Vidovic “La Catedral” – Veering even further from the epicenters of pupusa production, this video of Croatian virtuoso Ana Vidovic playing a gorgeous piece by classical Paraguayan guitarist, Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944), gives testimony not only the fluidity of her fingers on the frets, but also her ability to inhabit a song so fully that you feel strangely voyeuristic witnessing the bare emotion. A lot of the 61,000+ hits on this are probably from me.
- Grupo Cimarrón “Quitapesares” – Although certainly a song better paired with the prepping of arepas, this eclectic Latin playlist seemed to be calling for a cattleman’s kick. I had the good fortune of sitting in the front row and seeing these guys play when I was in Cali, Colombia, a couple years ago and it was one of the most unique and exhilarating performances I’ve ever witnessed. As purveyors of Joropo, a sort of cowboy music originating on the plains of Colombian and Venezuelan, they provide a taste of the hammered harps and blistering bandolas that brand the genre. It’s a far cry from where the buffalo roam, but here’s to your new home on the range.
On a recent trip to El Salvador, I found that pupusas could be purchased from virtually any restaurant, street vendor, or comedor, and they can be eaten with any meal or on their own as an in-between meal snack. The most common fillings were refried beans (typically red beans), cheese, and chicharrón (shredded pork), but you can put virtually anything in a pupusa and still get high fives from your digestive tract. They are generally served with curtido, a fermented cabbage relish (we didn’t ferment ours) and salsa roja, a thin non-spicy tomato sauce. We took our cues from this fine recipe by The Joyful Pantry, making alterations on the fly to suit our taste buds, available ingredients, and perverse whims.
- 3/4 C queso fresco (crumbled)
- 1/4 C cotija cheese
- 1/2 C refried black beans
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 2 1/4 C instant masa flour
- 1 1/2 C water
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 2 C shredded green cabbage
- 2 tbs. – 1/4 C minced yellow onion
- 1 C grated carrot
- 2 tbs. lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp. oregano
- 1 tbs. apple cider vinegar (we actually ended up dumping this in like we were spiking the punch on prom night)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Mix all curdito ingredients together. Cover and store in the fridge overnight or up to two days.
- Mix all filling ingredients together.
- For the dough, mix the flour and salt. Carefully, and with an almost ceremonial reverence, add the water and stir. The dough can inexplicably become sticky yet immensely crumbly at the same time, so you’ll need to experiment a bit to get the mixture just right.
- Begin assembling the pupusas as soon as you feel bravery begin to swell within your heart. If the coronary swelling is not from bravery, stop immediately and seek medical attention.
- Preheat an electric griddle to 400 F. Or if you don’t have one handy, you can use a stove-top skillet and trust your instincts.
- With wet hands, form a ball of dough the size of a monkey skull (just shy of a half cup or around 100 cubic centimeters). Pat the dough between your hands into a disc slightly larger than your palm.
- Scoop 2-3 tablespoons of filling onto the disk of dough, folding the edges in to completely cover the filling, creating a smooth ball of dough with none of the filling showing.
- Make sure your hands are still wet, then begin to pat the ball into a disc, rotating it as you work, until it’s about 1/2” thick and 6” in diameter. The filling should still be completely enclosed by the dough. If possible, do so without crying or renouncing your faith in a higher being.
- Place the pupusa on the hot griddle and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side, or until the outsides get brown.
- To serve, place a pupusa on a plate, splatter some salsa over it, then spread as much curtido over top of it as you can stand. ¡Buen Provecho!