Stuffed Corn-Masa Cakes

El Salvador is synonymous with pupusas, the lightly-charred, corn-masa cakes filled with soft, savory ingredients. In appearance, they’re similar to the Mexican gordita, the Venezuelan arape and the Guatemalan doblado. With the exception of the Venezuelan arape, these foods, along with Mexican and Central American tortillas and tamales are made using masa harina.

Poo-poo-sa, Pupusawa, Pupusa

I hear foreigners say, pa-, pe-, po-pusas and other vowel configurations. The correct pronunciation, something like “poo-poo-sas” should appeal more to your inner 3-year old. While the Spanish word, pupusa evolved from the ancient Pípil word, pupusawa, it seems the date of origin of the first pupusa is unknown.

Mesoamerica, Nixtamal, Comals

I read that pupusa tools were found at the Mayan archeological site in El Salvador, Joya de Cerén, which was covered by a volcano eruption in 600 A.D.. Consequently, it’s the best preserved Mayan village in Mesoamerica. I inquired when I visited the site. The archeologists found evidence of tamales made with black corn and filled with beans. Though, two distinct pupusa characteristics were not present, processed nixtamal corn and comals.

Migration, Civil War and the Spread of Pupuserías

In the mid-20th century, due to migration and proximity, Salvadorans in the larger cities spread pupusas to other parts of El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras. I recently saw a few pupuserías in Nicaragua. Civil war refuges of the 1980’s and 1990’s have set up pupserías all over North America. According to European travelers I spoke to from England, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden, they can’t find pupusas back home…yet.

My First Pupusa in El Salvador

I had my first Motherland pupusa at Pupuseria Lily, in the San Salvadoran neighborhood, Antiguo Cuzcatlán. No hipster ingredients here. They were simple, traditional and delicious. Aside from the typical ingredients, pupusas are best cooked on a comal. Comals are passed down from generation to generation, as food will cook and taste better and better after continued use.

How to Make Pupusas: The Tools
  • Comal = a flat grill or griddle made of sandstone, clay or iron
How to Make Pupusas: The Ingredients for Different Types of Pupusas
  • Pupusa revuelta = a classic pupusa made with chicarrón, cheese, beans.
  • Chicharrón = It’s not fried pork rind like in Mexico but cooked ground pork meat.
  • Quesillo cheese = a soft, fast-melting, salty artisanal cheese.
  • Ayote = a green squash of various sizes.
  • Loroco = a vine with edible flowers. A staple ingredient in various sauces and dishes.
  • Mora = an herb used in drinks and dishes.
  • Chipilín = a legume high in minerals but used as an herb in many local cuisines. Interesting, it’s considered a harmful weed in the US.
How to Make Pupusas: The Condiments
  • The Curtido = pickled cabbage, carrot and onion slaw similar to sauerkraut or kimchi. It can be spicy to add balance to the pupusa.
  • Salsa Roja = red sauce = watery tomato sauce blended with olive oil, onion and garlic. Hot pepper and other spices optional. Note, onion and garlic are staple ingredients in Salvadoran dishes.
How to Make Delicious Pupusas at Home

My friend’s nanny in San Salvador taught me to make pupusas. Assuming you buy the pre-made masa harina, pupusas are easy to prepare:

  • Follow the directions on the masa harina bag to reconstitute the masa flour. Generally, you’ll add a little warm water, a pinch of salt and a few tablespoons of oil until dough is pliable.
  • Set aside a separate bowl of water to dip your hands, like you would dip your hands in flour when making sugar cookies.
  • Grab a fist full of dough. With your hands, roll it into a ball and then begin to flatten it about 1/4 inch thick like you were making fresh tortillas.
  • Add a dollop of beans and place in the center. Add cheese and any other ingredients.
  • Fold the cake like an envelope to cover the ingredients. Once again, it will look like a ball and you will need to flatten the dough. The nanny’s pupusas were about a 1/4 inch thick. Mine were thicker. Finding the right density takes some practice.
  • Round the disc by holding it on its side and rolling the edge in the palm of the other hand.
  • Fix any holes or separations in the dough by dipping a finger in the water and brushing over the mark.
  • Place on a comal or heavy skillet lightly-brushed with olive oil. Cook for 4-5 minutes on each side until the pupusa is lightly charred.
  • Enjoy with curtido or salsa roja! Buen provecho!