SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- A Salvadoran lady pushed past my wife Chaya and ran up to the grill in front of the pupusaria. My wife just stood back and let the lady pass. Maybe she was a little nuts?
“Are there still pupusas!?!” the lady asked the pupusa cooks with a touch of urgency.
She was worried that she had missed dinner. With great relief she was told that she was not too late, the restaurant was still cooking pupusas. It was 7 PM.
Missing a meal is an easy thing to do in El Salvador, as most restaurants are only open for small windows of time throughout the day. On either side of a meal time, the restaurants are either closed or don’t have any food. If you are too late, no pupusas for you.
Meal times in El Salvador seem to run from very early morning to around 9 AM for breakfast, 11:00 to 12:30 for lunch, and 5:30 to 7:00 for dinner. Few restaurants here cook food to order, and even less are open throughout the day. The restaurants will cook a certain amount of food in advance for each meal, and when it is gone, it is gone. The pupusarias have all of the ingredients prepared in advance, and when you make an order they assemble them into pupusas and cook them in front of you, but they are only open for breakfast and dinner.
The people in El Salvador seem to know their meal times well, and they only try to go to restaurants at the specified meal times — at all other times of the day the eating houses are completely vacant.
“You can get food in the market,” a girl at a pupusaria told me when I tried to order food outside of a culturally mandated meal time. In the market of Suchitoto there are little vendors who cook up snacks for people who missed a meal or are hungry and without another option. In the more informal food houses — like bakeries, street vendor stalls, or snack shops — you can order food at any time of the day. But the menu is stunted at pizza, hamburgers, sandwiches, pasteles, fried yucca, or sweet bread: to get a full meal, you need to go to a proper restaurant at the proper meal time.
It has often been my restaurant eating strategy to time my meals outside of the culturally mandated meal time. In many countries the restaurants are open throughout the day and cook food to order. If I go outside of meal time, the restaurants are usually devoid of people and I can get my food quickly. But in El Salvador, this is a risky proposition: to try to go to a restaurant outside of meal time is to go hungry.
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