Paz, Love and Pupusas
For some, Spring conjures up flavors of asparagus and morels, fiddleheads and favas, sweet peas and rhubarb. While it makes me think of those foods, too, when I think of Spring, I always think of pupusas.
Eleven years ago I spent the Spring semester of my Junior year in college in El Salvador. To say it was a life-changing experience would be an understatement.
The program I was with, Casa de la Solidaridad, fully immerses students in Salvadoran life. It combines service work with classroom learning and helps to instil a greater understanding of poverty and justice.
I lived and worked with Salvadorans every day. I studied their politics and literature, spoke their language, ate their food. I made friends with some of them and was invited into their homes and lives.
Two days each week I volunteered in a dental clinic in a remote village where I learned how to drill teeth and make partial dentures – skills, I’m relieved to say, I have not had to employ since returning home. For lunch on those days, my Salvadoran colleagues and I would retire to a pupusaria for sustenance, conversation, and laughs – memories that have played a role in my life nearly every day since.
Pupusarias, as the name suggests, serve pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador, which are corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, pork, or a combination thereof. They can be eaten plain, but are more traditionally topped with curtido, a semi-pickled semi-fermented cabbage slaw, and salsa roja, a spicy pureed tomato sauce. Most Salvadoran pupusarias, which range from full service restaurants to makeshift roadside stands, keep their curtido out on the tables in gigantic repurposed glass jars topped with plates or bowls to keep the flies out.
Ever concerned about my delicate American digestive system, I viewed those jars with some suspicion, taking as little as I could without offending my hosts. Yet today, I have to admit that when I tried these pupusas without their accompaniments, they seemed just a tad naked.
Like so many dishes, pupusas evoke memories; their sweet masa and oozing cheese quickly take me back to a time and place. However, just as not all memories are good ones, my time in El Salvador, while sprinkled with occasions of warmth and touching generosity, was also very difficult.
I was a different person then, brasher and less teachable than I might have liked. Looking back, I wish I had possessed a stronger constitution, both physically and emotionally. I wish I had been more honest, more open, more willing. I wish I had been able to eat more curtido. I wish I had wanted to.
But we do the best we can at any given moment; we only ever are what we are. The memories I have of El Salvador may not be as rosy as I’d like, but they’re important just the same.
Usually we cook and eat to reminisce about good times, those we have loved and the people we have enjoyed being. But sometimes we need to remember other things, like how far we have come, because that bears celebration as well.
This recipe is a tribute to my friends in Jayaque who continue to teach me, more than a decade later. I’ve changed the curtido slightly, including a bit of shaved fennel, a refreshing addition from which I feel most cabbage slaws could benefit.
Pupusas with curtido and salsa roja
3 c masa harina, see note
3 c water
1 c shredded mild cheese such as Monterey Jack or mozzarella
1 c cooked or canned kidney beans
½ medium onion, diced and lightly sautéed
½ small head Napa cabbage
1 large carrot, peeled
½ large bulb fennel
¼ medium onion
1/3 c apple cider vinegar
¼ c water
½ t salt
½ t oregano, preferably Mexican
1 T brown sugar
1 large, ripe tomato
¼ medium onion, diced and lightly sautéed
1 clove garlic, lightly sautéed
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped, optional
Using a food processor with a grating blade or hand grater, grate the carrot. Using a sharp knife or the slicing blade of the food processor, shred the cabbage and thinly slice the onion. Core the fennel and slice thinly with a knife or food processor.
Combine the vegetables in a medium bowl and add vinegar, water, salt, oregano and brown sugar.
Stir and allow to sit out at room temperature for 4-6 hours or refrigerate overnight.
For Salsa Roja:
In a blender, puree the tomato, onion, garlic and jalapeno, if using, until smooth. Strain the puree into a bowl to remove tomato seeds and skins.
In a medium bowl, mix the masa and water. This is a bit of an art. You want to form a dough that’s not too wet and not too crumbly. Factors like temperature and humidity will affect how much water you add. Start with 3 cups of masa and 2 cups of water and mix in the rest of the water gradually until all the flour is incorporated, you may even need more water depending on your environment. It is better for the dough to be a little on the wet side.
Leave the mixture to sit for 10 to 20 minutes while you prepare the filling as the masa will continue absorbing water. Check the texture before you begin making the pupusas. If the dough sticks to your hands, it’s too wet. If you try to flatten a ball of dough into a disc and it crumbles at the edges it’s too dry. You may have to make this recipe more than once before you get a good feeling for the dough, but keep trying.
Using a food processor, puree the beans and onion into a smooth mixture. Set aside the beans and the grated cheese for filling the pupusas.
To assemble the pupusas:
Form a ball using about ¼ to 1/3 cup of masa dough.
Flatten the ball of dough with your hands until it’s about ¼ inch thick.
Cup the disc of dough with one hand and with the other hand, add a tablespoon of bean mixture and a large pinch of cheese.
Gently fold the sides of the disc toward the center to cover the filling and pinch to close. (You’re basically reforming a ball.) Note, if your dough is too dry it will crack along the sides as you fold it over. If this is the case moisten the remainder of your dough with more water before making any more pupusas.
Gently flatten the ball of dough and filling. Hold the ball with one hand and using a “press and turn” motion with the other, rotate the dough clockwise pressing down gently with your thumb from the outside toward the center. When you have about a quarter-sized bump in the middle, pat the disk between your hands to flatten. Place on a plate and repeat.
When all the dough has been used, preheat a flat pan on medium heat. I used a cast-iron pan which was as close as I could come to the traditional Salvadoran “comal.” You could use any medium or large fry pan, skillet or griddle.
Place a single layer of pupusas in the pan. Cook for two to three minutes on one side then carefully check them – if they don’t lift off the pan easily, let them cook longer. As soon as they turn golden or brown in spots, turn them over. Repeat on the other side. Put cooked pupusas on a plate and cover with a clean napkin or towel to keep warm.
Serve with curtido and salsa roja.
Note: I used Maseca brand masa flour, which is corn flour treated with lye, it’s totally different than cornmeal or plain corn flour. It’s available in the Mexican or Latin section of many supermarkets. Salsa roja is typically spicy, however you could add more or less of the jalapeno depending on your personal taste.