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How to Make Pupusas in El Salvador

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CINQUERA, El Salvador- Food in El Salvador is along the same veins as in neighboring countries, but is definitely of a slightly different hue. Lunch is the big meal of the day, and chicken, soup, and beef abound, but breakfast and dinner is all pupusas. This would perhaps be a pity if pupusas were not so filling, good tasting, and cheap.

My friends, wife, and everyone who has pretty much every known me often make jests at my food strategy — tastes mean next to nothing to me, variety even less — I just care about nutrition, food weight, and price. I want the most food for the dollar. In El Salvador, the pupusa has been my strategy for filling up my stomach for very little money. The average pupusa costs around 25 to 30 cents, a filling meal is three — I usually eat four or five. By eating pupusas I can get a good meal that completely fills me up for 75 cents to $1.25.

What is a pupusa

Pupusas are corn or rice flour patties that have either beans, cheese, vegetables, meat or a variety of other foods shoved inside of them. They are usually cooked on an open steel grill, sold on the streets, or in small restaurants. A place that sells pupusas is called a pupusaria, and these restaurants seldom sell much else — pupusas are complete meals in and of themselves. They are generally eaten with cabbage, pepper, vinegar salad and salsa, and are common breakfast and dinner food in El Salvador.

How to make papusas

“How do you get the things inside the pupusa?” I once asked a pupusa cook. The answer was simple: you just put it inside.

Dumbass.

Though I must admit that I still did not fully understand the ins and outs of pupusa making until I visited the home of my cousin’s wife in the countryside of El Salvador. I knew what pupusas were, knew that I liked to eat them, but still could not figure out how the beans, cheese, and other good stuff got inside of the little round, flat dough patties.

It was a good thing that my cousin’s mother in law was cooking us pupusas for dinner over a grill in the kitchen in the rear of her home’s outside courtyard. I asked if I could help. The old woman laughed at my jest, but invited me to learn the art of pupusa making anyway.

It was apparent that she did not initially take me to be a very promising student.

The first step of making pupusas is making the dough. This is usually made from either corn or rice flour, and is, apparently, made just like any other batch of dough. The dough is then kneaded down to a thick pulp with a basalt matate stone and grinder.

Once the dough is prepared, you take up a hand full of it and ball it up tight, then smush it down flat. You then pat it a lot and toss it between your hands like the girls do while making tortillas in the street. Make sure that you first dip your hands in oil or else the dough will just stick to your fingers and separate from the patty — which makes a mess of it, and, apparently, also makes any female Salvadoran onlooker laugh at you with out any regard for your pride or self-preservation.

After the dough is packed down flat and looks like a tortilla, you spread a little of the flavoring — the beans, cheese, meat, ayote, anything that you want to put in it — on one side of the patty. Keep these ingredients towards the center of the tortilla. Then wrap up the outsides of the patty up over the stuff on the inside, almost as if you were making dumplings. Make sure that the insides are fully covered with dough and that you have a ball with the flavoring on the insides and dough on the outside.

Pound this ball flat into a patty again. Round it off and make it look good. Toss it on the grill.

This is how to make a pupusa. It is easy, simple, the women of El Salvador make them everyday from the time they are small children.

And I must say that I proved to be a decent pupusa making student — my wares remained in tact, they were round, cooked well, were better than those of my wife — this is a food that I am going to take with me on my travels. Learning how to make these pupusas turned out not only to be a silly activity done for the purpose of entertaining myself and friends in the backyard of a rural Salvadoan home but a travel cooking skill that I can add to my simple menu of rice, beans, noodles, eggs, and chicken.

Pupusas are one of the best traveling foods that I have yet encountered — I eat them twice a day, like the Salvadorans.

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Filed under: Culture and Society, El Salvador, Food

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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