I’ve always enjoyed sampling new foods while traveling. Eating the cuisine indigenous to a region allows me to viscerally engage in a new culture rather than being a passive observer. But most of my previous travels took place in Western Europe, so other than a bad encounter with haggis in Scotland, I hadn’t encountered any cuisine that wasn’t sort of what I expected. But while on a university fellowship in El Salvador, I discovered a unique and tasty cuisine as well as warm and wonderful people. Salvadoran cuisine has many European components because of the heavy Spanish colonial influence. But many of the dishes are descended from pre-Columbian Mayan and Pipil foods.
Travelers to El Salvador will find pupusas almost everywhere. Essentially, a pupusa is a ball of corn flour moistened with water and hand-slapped into a thick tortilla with beans, cheese and sometimes meat inside.
Every town will have several pupusa vendors with women deftly poking pockets into pupusas and stuffing them with beans and cheese before slapping the flour into a thick tortilla ready to fry on a wood or charcoal fired griddle. They look so simple and commonplace that the complexity of flavors and textures can be surprising. The coarse ground corn flour—often made with stone mortars and pestles—contrasts nicely with the smooth creaminess of the re-fried beans. The cheese melts into the beans nicely and gives the pupusa a rich tangy flavor. The initial crunch of the lightly fried corn masa quickly gives way to a creamy inner texture. Many Salvadorans eat their pupusas topped with cortido—a kind of pickled cabbage.
El Salvador has awesome beaches. I really enjoyed eating a traditional breakfast on the beach every morning when I was staying in El Zonte.
While watching the early morning surfers catch big waves just after the sun had risen above the low coastal mountains behind me, I would indulge in a large leisurely breakfast. Eggs and refried beans shared a plate with a healthy serving of fried plantains and bread. The generous slab of creamy queso fresco with its moist saltiness was the perfect complement to sweetness of the plantains. These breakfasts were hearty enough that I frequently ate a very light lunch and a few pupusas for dinner.
After traveling through Europe and eating very sophisticated French and Italian cuisine, El Salvador offered a welcome simplicity. Rustic is a word often over-used to describe simple foods but in the case of El Salvador it fits well. Unless you look hard, you won’t find much in the way of fussy food. But the food you’ll find is full of elegant simplicity. Just like so many cuisines, there is a magic that happens when Spanish food traditions mix with old indigenous culinary customs. From the mountains of Suchitoto to the black sand beaches of El Zonte, you’ll never be far from the smell of wood smoke and frying pupusas.
This guest post comes to us from Jesse Langley, a freelance writer who has traveled extensively in Central America. We welcome his tasty experiences as pupusas also happen to be one of our favorite dishes (rated #2 on our Top 10 list for 2010!).