Jenny Famewhore

Thursday in the Heights: Tasting El Salvador

Posted in Recipes, Travel by Jenny Famewhore on January 29, 2010

By Jenny Liu

Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I am walking into Arbol del Dios, past a gallery devoted to El Salvador’s most celebrated resident artist, Fernando Llort. My mind absorbs the bright colors and bold outlines from my peripherals, but my feet keep me moving past the paintings, scenes of village life, courtyard, and sunlit emerald facade. Despite the vibrant colors and the view of paradise, I do not pause until I am in the restaurant, pointing at food and muttering my heart’s desires in fragmented Spanish.

workers at Tipicos Margoth, making pupusas

My single minded focus could be traced back to several factors since I had arrived in El Salvador. Due to the sanitation codes that were far below American standards, my hosts had adamantly maintained that I should stay completely away from street foods, which is the usual cheap and highly effective method I use to explore the culinary landscape of every new country that I visit. I had only eaten food from the sterilized environment of malls, the playground of the upper class and expats, where American and Mexican fast-food chains dominated the food court. Authentic El Salvadoran food was strangely inaccessible in this bubble. When I was finally able to take steps away from my gilded cage and into the restaurant Arbol del Dios, nothing could distract me from my goal of trying El Salvador’s dish of the country, pupusas.

El Sal's economy: "$20 bills not accepted"

Say it with me. “Pupusas!” Fun, isn’t it? Similar to their close cousins, the Mexican quesadilla or the Venezuelan arepa, pupusas are flat discs of masa harina, or corn flour, filled with anything from cheese to refried beans to chicharrones, or fried pork. They are often available in little roadside joints called pupuserias. At the Arbol del Dios, I bite into the soft dough, which yields a flood of hot, delicious cheese and tiny bits of chicharrones.

Making pupusas is cost and time efficient. I eagerly tried to recreate my south-of-the border experience, but ultimately failed in one aspect — instead of corn flour, I had hurriedly grabbed a box of cornmeal from the supermarket, leading to a much grainier, tougher texture in my homemade version of the delicacy. Though this unexpected concoction was salvageable when drowned in a vat of spicy, salsa roja, I came away with the crucial knowledge that corn flour and cornmeal are not interchangeable. Do not make this mistake. Otherwise, it’s as simple as playing pattycake with dough and filling it with all sorts of delectable, savory mixtures, perhaps complimented with a side of guacamole and sour cream for an extra spin.


  • 2 cups masa harina (corn flour)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup filling of choice (cheese, meat, potatoes, chilies, etc.)

Salsa roja
Makes about 2 cups

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 serrano or jalapeño chile pepper, chopped
  • 2 cups canned tomatoes, diced
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • Extra garlic and onions if so desired
  • Salt and pepper – to taste
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Cooking Instructions:
Pupusa Cooking Instructions:
1.    Stir the masa harina and water together in a mixing bowl
until smooth; knead well. Cover bowl, and let the dough rest 5
to 10 minutes.
2.    Shape the dough into eight, two-inch diameter balls. On a
lightly floured surface, roll out each ball into six inches diameter
round. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of filling over each round. Place a second
tortilla over the cheese, and pinch the edges together to seal in
the cheese.
3.    Heat ungreased skillet over medium-high heat. Place one tor
tilla into the skillet at a time, and cook until cheese melts and
tortillas are lightly browned, about two minutes on each side.
Serve with salsa roja.

Salsa Roja Cooking Instructions:
1.    Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium flame. Add the onion,
garlic, and chile, and saute for two to three minutes, or until the
onion is translucent.
2.    Stir in the tomatoes and oregano, and simmer for about 10
minutes. Remove from heat, and cool a bit.
3.    Puree the tomato sauce in a blender until smooth. Add salt
and pepper to taste, stir in cilantro, and serve.

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