We put a call out on Facebook first for ideas for this month’s cuisine, and there were several excellent suggestions. We didn’t pick any of them this time. You’re probably wondering what the point of asking is if we didn’t follow through. Well, the good thing is that your ideas got our brains going, and we bounced all the way through the list and meandered through our own. Finally, we came down to two–Cuban or El Salvadoran. After a quick Twitter survey, we finally decided to try a few dishes from the smallest Central American country–El Salvador. Having absolutely no previous experiences with a single food from the region, we at least knew that we would stumble upon something quite interesting.
There are several El Salvadoran restaurants sprinkled throughout Los Angeles County, and you can find a distinct concentration of businesses along Vermont Avenue (between 11th Street and West Adams Boulevard) just east of Koreatown. Interestingly enough, community leaders are fighting to have that area officially recognized. After a bit of research, it appears that Los Angeles County has the highest numbers of El Salvadorans living outside of El Salvador–almost one million people! That said, there’s no doubt you can find a bevy of good food not too far from your house if you poke around. We’ve seen a number of small restaurants and shops with the word “pupuseria” plastered on the front. We knew they were a stuffed, savory pastry of sorts, and we knew they are regarded as highly delicious. Once the decision had been made to make El Salvadoran food, pupusas were right there on the list.
Pupusas, also known as pupisio, have a rich history in El Salvadoran culture. They may as well be considered the national dish of the country. They originated from the Pipil tribes who lived in the area that came to be El Salvador. Corn tortillas made of masa would be stuffed with meat, cheese or beans and cooked on a hot surface until browned. A simple, yet filling dish. It wasn’t until about the 1960s that pupusas began to pop up in stands all over El Salvador and neighboring parts of Honduras and Guatemala. In 2005, the country’s government instituted Día Nacional de la Pupusa on every second Sunday of November–a clear indication of the importance this dish to the country’s history and current culture. A common side dish to serve with pupusas is curtido, which is a spicy, vinegar-based slaw. We had our meal, and now we just had to grab a few ingredients.
As is the case with our Ethnic Explorations, we usually venture out to find any specialty ingredients. This time was no different, except we found ourselves at a local chain. Most people from Southern California may be aware of Vallarta Supermarket, which is a local pan-Latin grocery store featuring products from various Spanish-speaking countries. There is a high concentration of Mexican and Central American products. It was the perfect place to venture for a few necessities to make this meal happen.
Vallartas are found in eight counties of SoCal, with twenty of those stores located in Los Angeles County. This time, we popped over to North Hollywood to poke around the aisles. The store is fairly large with a varied produce section, a dairy wall that seems to stretch for hundreds of feet, a packed carniceria, taqueria and pasteleria and rows of spices, canned goods, juices and drinks and frozen products. The prices for produce are ridiculously low, so it would be a great place to grab items for the veggie-based curtido. There would also be a high chance of finding the perfect meat, cheese and the masa de harina for the pupusas.
Walking through the aisles, it was very clear that you could find items here that you’d never see at your local mainstream grocer. Heading along the dairy aisle, it was imperative to find the perfect cheese for the pupusas. Although many recipes for pupusas make room for the use of nontraditional cheeses such as cheddar and mozzarella, that was not going to work for us. Especially considering Vallarta’s array of cheeses in the dairy case. Nestled amongst the mozzarella and crema salvadorena, there was a blue styrofoam package of cuajada fresca promising ‘sabor salvadoreno’ (Salvadoran flavor). Well, that seemed perfect enough. The cheese would crumble nicely and add a bit of salty flavor to the dish. Over in the meat section, there were a pile of fresh Salvadoran chorizo links calling our name.
Then it was time to search for would be loroco–a budding flower used often in many Central American dishes, including pupusas. The flavor hits notes of broccoli, squash and asparagus, according to some. Unfortunately, Vallarta did not have fresh loroco. The only version they had came in a jar sitting in brine. According to one site, there is a ban on imported loroco as the fresh ones may carry a pesky beetle with them. Something about those pickled buds did not seem as appetizing, so we had to pass. Another item in the cart was plantains. Just a few to add something sweet to the evening’s dish. Last but not least, it was time to grab the masa de harina. If we were super authentic, we would grind fresh corn into flour, but we have a great substitute in markets. It is a dried, powdered form of the flour that goes under the brand name Maseca. One of the store employees led us directly to the flour aisle, indicating Maseca was the best brand to buy. With the final ingredient in hand, it was time to head back and cook!
Curtido, a pickled cabbage slaw, needs time to sit, so the flavors can mesh. That was the first item to be made. It needs a few hours to chill, and it can sit overnight for best results. Our version has a bit of sugar in it to cut the acidity of the vinegar, and there is a bit of lime juice and cilantro to lighten the slaw as well. With the curtido in the fridge, it was time to work on the filling for the pupusas. We were going to try a version of pupusa revueltas with a mixture of items inside. Typically, they feature one main ingredient–usually meat or cheese–but ours would have both. Once the filling was done, it was just a matter of mixing the corn dough together for the tortillas and filling each ball with a bit of chorizo and cheese. Pupusas are round and flattened with a tortilla press. With no tortilla press on hand, we used a rolling pin to shape the disks just before frying. Even though it did not take too long to do so, we want a press next time! One of us fried up the pupusas, while the other fried up the plantains and shook sugar and cinnamon over them. We also chopped up a few tomatoes and tossed the pieces with cilantro for a fresh salsa. The meal was down in minutes, and we were ready to eat.
With pupusas, curtido and fried plantains on the table, this was one of our most delicious Ethnic Explorations so far. We enjoyed every single part of it! The spicy, cold curtido balances the warm, dense pupusas that crunch in your mouth, revealing a soft interior stuffed with salty cheese and chorizo. Sweet tomatoes with subtle flecks of cilantro set everything off, and each bite is packed with flavor. We had plenty for the two of us to split up and have again during the week. Pupusas for days! Or one day if you’re the kind of person who cannot resist eating them all. Thanks to our new friend Fallon, there’s a Le Creuset mortar and pestle set coming in the mail! Now all we need is a tortilla press, and perhaps we can grind down fresh cumin, coriander and toasted, dried chiles for our next batch of pupusas. Trust and believe, we are not done with El Salvadoran food yet.
Pupusas Revueltas – Serves 8
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2 pound El Salvadoran chorizo
1/2 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro
2 cups masa de harina
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1- 1 1/4 cups water
1/2 pound cuajada fresca*
1. Heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Once hot, add the garlic and onions and cook until the onions are translucent, approximately 3-5 minutes.
2. Add the chorizo and cook until no longer pink, approximately 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the cilantro and set aside to cool. Once fully cooled, break up the cheese, crumble up and lightly mix into the filling.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk the masa de harina, cumin, paprika, chili powder and salt. Add 1 cup of the water and mix until combined. The dough should be moist enough to shape into a ball, but not sticky. If the dough feels too dry, add a little more water until it is moist and firm. Cover and chill for 10-15 minutes.
4. Split the dough up into eight sections and roll each one into a ball. One by one, flatten each ball slightly with your hand and create an indent in the middle. Add a bit of the meat and cheese filling and close the opening.
5. If you have a tortilla press, flatten the dough out to about 4” wide. Be sure the filling does not come out. If you do not have a tortilla press, flatten the dough with the palms of your hand. Even better (and easier), lay the filled dough between two pieces of parchment paper and use a rolling pin to flatten.
6. Pour about 1/2” of vegetable oil into a large skillet and heat over a medium high flame. Once hot, fry the pupusas until browned, approximately 2 minutes per side.
*You can use any fresh, soft cheese of your liking. Queso blanco or queso fresco are great too, and they are available at any Latin market. If you can’t find those, you can even experiment with Monterey jack, white cheddar or mozzarella.
Curtido – Serves 10-12
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 jalapeno, deseeded and minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 bunch scallions, minced
1/2 red onion, diced
1 medium cabbage, cored and diced
2 carrots, shredded
Zest of 2 limes
1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro
1. Pour the apple cider vinegar, water, sugars, salt, oregano and jalapeno into a pot and set over medium heat. Bring to a slight boil, stirring to dissolve the sugars and salt. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. Set another large pot of water to a rolling boil. Dump the cabbage into the pot and cook 3-5 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and set inside a very large bowl of ice water. Drain the cabbage, pressing out any excess water, and put into a large serving bowl.
3. Add the scallions, onion, carrots, lime zest and cilantro to the cabbage. Toss well. Drizzle the warm dressing over the vegetables. Mix well to incorporate. Chill for at least two hours or up to overnight.
Platanos Fritos (Fried Plantains) – Serves 8
4 ripe plantains, peeled and sliced into 1/2″ pieces
1. Pour about 1″ of vegetable oil into a deep frying pan. Once hot, add the plantains and fry them in batches until browned on both sides.
2. Set on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Dust with a bit of cinnamon, sugar and salt. Serve immediately.
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