What Are Pupusas Salvadoreñas?

With that strange name you may ask what are pupusas Salvadoreñas?  Let me put it this way, have you ever had the opportunity to eat in a Salvadorian restaurant or food stand? If so, chances are that you have eaten a pupusa, often considered the national dish of El Salvador. Essentially a thick, filled corn tortilla, they are a delicious example of not only Salvadorian food, but also Mesoamerican cuisine.

The ingredients for making pupusas are very simple: masa (ground corn mixed with water) and filling. Common ingredients include cheese, beans, pork and flor de loroco or loroco flower.  You can add this fillings individually or you can combine them.

Pupusas are traditionally served with tomato sauce, curtido (pickled cabbage with carrots and onions), and chile sauce, added to taste.

Making Pupusas

Watching an experienced cook form pupusas is fascinating – the masa goes from a lump, to a ball, to a hollow moon shape which is then filled and patted into a thick pancake and tossed on the grill or comal… all in the blink of an eye.

When making a pupusa, perhaps the most challenging – and most important – part is making sure the two sides don’t fall apart. Proportions are key, and, similar to tortillas, the texture of the masa must be soft and pliant, yet not runny.

The History of Pupusas

Pupusas: a Salvadorian staple, shown with traditional accompaniments.

Pupusas: a Salvadorian staple, shown with traditional accompaniments.

The history of pupusas goes back to the Pipil people in pre-Columbian times, and utensils used to make pupusas have even been found at archaeological sites. Written history dates to 1570, when Fray Bernardino de Sahagún wrote about a food consisting of cooked masa mixed with meat and beans.

While there is not complete agreement as to the etymology of the word “pupusa,” it is likely to have come from word or combination of words in Nahuatl, the language of the Pipil. Perhaps the most accepted explanation is that it comes from combining the words popotl (meaning big or stuffed) and tlaxkalli (tortilla) into the word popotlax.

Popularity of Pupusas

Other Latin American cuisines  also have foods that are similar to pupusas, such as South American arepas. Unlike pupusas, however, arepas are filled after cooking (instead of before) and are used much like pita bread, with an endless array of sandwich-like fillings.

The popularity of pupusas extends beyond the El Salvador borders. They are a staple in Salvadorian expat communities, such as the Washington, D.C., area, where you can easily find pupuserías and food trucks specializing in the tasty snack. Frozen pupusas can even be found in many grocery stores in areas with large Hispanic populations.

Other Central American countries such as Nicaragua and Costa Rica have also adopted the pupusa as a standard in their taquerías and small restaurants. In Costa Rica, for example, they are a staple of the food stalls at regional carnivals known as fiestas.

Now that you now what are pupusas Salvadoreñas the next time you have a chance to try this traditional Latin food staple, go for it!

Have you tried a pupusa?

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