On the very first night in El Salvador, we walked down a dark cobblestone street away from our hostel and towards a dim light flickering in the distance. A few local dogs howled and barked as we trotted on. Finally, we arrived. A table covered with colorful cloth, a pile of veggies, a griddle, and a smiling Salvadoran woman greeted us as we emerged from the darkness. She waved us towards a single picnic table, grabbed a handful of dough from a plastic tub, and started slapping it between her hands.
Those sounds of clapping hands, the slapping of dough between palms, would follow us through the entire country. We heard it in the morning in the main squares of large cities and in the evenings on the narrow streets of small towns, at the beaches and at the top of volcanos, inside upscale restaurants and by small street vendor stalls. It was essentially the anthem of El Salvador – the sound of pupusas being made.
“These are our very first pupusas,” Victor told the woman in Spanish. She put her hand on her heart in a gesture of surprise and delight.
“You will love it!” she exclaimed. “We all love it!”
Victor ordered a variety of fillings – zucchini, cheese, beans, and garlic. A dog that followed us barking the entire way now sat placidly by our feet, no doubt hoping for a bite of dinner.
I waited impatiently. I’ve had tortillas, gorditas, and arepas before, but I’d never even heard of pupusas until we started planning the trip to El Salvador. Here, pupusas are not just the most popular dish and an almost daily dinner, but an immense source of national pride. Made from cornmeal or rice flour, these thick griddle cakes can be stuffed with multiple ingredients – cheese, meat, squash, vegetables, refried beans, and even edible flowers! But they are not to be eaten alone. Every plate of pupusas comes with curtido, a mildly spicy fermented cabbage slaw, and tomato salsa, almost as runny as tomato juice. If curtido doesn’t initially sound appetizing, I promise you it’s a delicious mix resembling German coleslaw and Korean kimchi that becomes quite addictive after a while.
As piping-hot pupusas landed on our table, I immediately reached for one and started piling curtido on top and pouring tomato sauce.
“No! No!” whispered Victor, urgently. “This is not how you eat pupusas! Never eat it like a pizza with curtido topping or folded over like a taco, that’s how tourists eat it. Let me show you. I watched a documentary.”
He tore off small pieces of a pupusa and used it to pinch a little bit of curtido and smeared it in tomato salsa around the plate. Then he popped the small piece into his mouth. I looked around. The only one watching us was the dog and he did seem duly impressed. I repeated every step to be rewarded with a perfectly balanced bite of fluffy dough, fragrant cheese, tasty cabbage slaw, and a little tomato flavor. Take it from me, a hungry tourist who spent two following weeks battling an impulse to instinctively stuff the entire pupusa into my mouth - eat it the way locals do and you will 1) enjoy every bite 2) not burn the roof of your mouth on hot fillings and 3) look like a Salvadoran if only for a minute.
Once I had my fill, I couldn’t stop wondering. Why have I never heard of pupusas before? Why isn’t this one of the most popular dishes in entire Central America, along with tacos and guacamole? What else have I been missing? Turns out the documentary Victor watched covered most of my non-hypothetical questions.
Pupusas are only popular in El Salvador and Honduras (which we haven’t visited yet), due to their historical roots of being created by the Pipil tribe who lived in these areas around 1,000 AD. Pupusas weren’t even that popular in El Salvador until 1940s when they were mostly enjoyed in the central part of the country. With migrating population, pupusas spread across El Salvador with regional variations in shape, size, and filling and are now the main food staple. We even heard a strange fact that one out of every 25 women in El Salvador is employed in making pupusas, but honestly don’t know how true that is. At the very end of our trip, on our way to the airport, we briefly stopped by a small town outside of the capital where it seemed like every woman was employed at a pupuseria! The entrance of the town boasted over 50 pupusa-making stalls and restaurants, crammed down the street one after another – a perfect stop after flying in or before flying out of the country. And just in case there are not enough people inside El Salvador making pupusas, one of the most popular tourist activities in the much-frequented town of Suchitoto is a pupusa-making class.
So ingrained are pupusas into Salvadoran culture, that two full days in 2013 Central America Free Trade Agreement negotiations were spent on arguing with Honduras as to who would have the exclusive rights to export pupusas, before the Honduran delegation finally ceded to El Salvador.
We ate pupusas almost every day and never got tired of it. We chased cheese pupusas with sips of traditional hot chocolate drink in Santa Ana, sampled very untraditional chocolate pupusas for breakfast in Suchitoto, and tried every savory filling on the menu. Surprisingly enough, the best pupusas we found were in a random small roadside stall by Tazumal Archeological Site. We spent the whole day walking around and were tired and hungry. A stern-looking woman by the griddle was slapping the dough so vigorously, that I started to think this dough personally wronged her. She didn’t care much for customer service, barely made eye contact with us, and only slightly nodded at our order. But she brought an entire jar of deliciously crunchy curtido and her pupusas were perfectly cooked with the most delectable fillings. We left a generous tip and profoundly thanked her. She barely acknowledged us and went right back to beating up the dough.
This set quite a precedent. From then on, as we wandered from pupuseria to pupuseria, we sized up the women at the griddle. Did she look too young and thus was inexperienced in the art of pupusas? Was she in too good of a mood to properly abuse the dough? Was she spending too much time worrying about the customers and too little time refining her pupusas? I don’t know if our system worked at all, but we never had a bad pupusa.
Last week I spotted something familiar on a shelf in Costco - a giant plastic jar of curtido labeled as “Authentic Latin American Slaw”. I bought it immediately and that evening Victor and I ate the crunchy vinegary slaw right out of the jar with forks. Neither of us said it, but we were both thinking the same thing, “It would certainly be nice to have a pupusa right about now!”
To be honest, I feel like that every single day since El Salvador.