I had tried pupusas when I lived in Southern California, and loved them. But I knew they’d be more incredible in El Salvador, where they originated and are the national dish. But when I got to El Salvador, I was overwhelmed by the options and since my Spanish is limited, I needed help figuring out what was what. I couldn’t find help on line. So as a guide and a gift to non-Spanish speakers, here is my opus on pupusas.
What is a Pupusa
A pupusa [puˈpusa] is a traditional Salvadoran dish and slice of heaven made of thick, handmade corn dough and filled with all sorts of delicious fillings. It’s similar to the Colombian arepa but made with a corn flour called nixtamal. Nixtamal has undergone a process which breaks down the grain, making valuable
nutrients available. They can also be made from rice (arroz) flour, which is a little chewier and blander. Still a good option – and a good backdrop for some of the heavier fillings, but I prefer the corn option (maíz), which adds its own, rich flavor. The first question you’ll likely be asked when you order a pupusa is “maíz o arroz?”
Pupusas are typically served with curtido (lightly fermented cabbage slaw with red chilies and vinegar) and a watery tomato salsa.
Guide to Pupusas – Basic
The most basic pupusas are:
pupusa de queso: Cheese! This is usually a soft cheese called Quesillo found throughout Central America. This is always an excellent choice.
- pupusa de frijoles (also called pupusa de frijoles refritos): Frijoles refritos are refried beans. Yum!
- pupusa de frijoles y queso: Self explanatory and as delicious as it sounds.
- pupusa de chicharron: cooked pork meat ground to a paste consistency (called chicharrón, not to be confused with fried pork rind, which is also known as chicharrón in some other countries, such as Nicaragua)
- pupusa revuelta: A mix of cheese, beans and chicharrón
You can’t go wrong with any of these options. You can also get any variation – want chicharron and frijoles? You can have it. These variations are usually the cheapest – from US$0.30 to US$1.00, depending on where you are. And you can’t walk half a block anywhere in El Salvador without hitting a pupusaria. They’re sold on the street, in restaurants and in dedicated stalls. Thank god!
How to Eat Them
If you’re in a restaurant, you’ll get the pupusas on a plate, with a side bowls of the
curtido (cabbage/vinegar slaw) and salsa. Put the slaw on top of the pupusa, pour some salsa on top and you’re ready for the hard part. Most Salvadorians eat pupusas with their hands. I’ve tried, and it’s hard navigating the slaw and the salsa. But I’m still trying. If you’re in a pupusaria, they’ll take pity on you and give you a plastic fork. This is kind, but basically worthless. Pupusa’s aren’t tough, but the plastic fork falls short. If you’ve taken them para llevar (to go), feel no shame and grab a knife and fork. You can also usually get proper silverware if you’re dining in a restaurant.
Guide to Pupusas – Tier 2
The next tier up are slightly more expensive (US$0.10-$0.20) and are all worth a try. They’re not available everywhere, at all times. Pupusas reflect local availability and seasonality as well as the cooks preference. I’ve noted my favorites, but that’s just one person’s opinion – and also reflective of the cook. Experiment!
- Pupusa de queso con ayote: cheese is the base, mixed with ayote, a flavorful, squash-like delicacy. This is one of my favorites and seems too delicious to be healthy. But it’s good for you!
- Pupusa de queso con loroco: loroco is a vine flower bud from Central America. I didn’t particularly favor this flavor. It was kind of like celery, without the crunchy texture.
- Pupusa de queso con mora: cheese and blackberries! Sounds weird, tastes delicious!
- Pupusa de queso con jamon: Ham and cheese. Enough said – a nice starter pupusa for the gringos!
- Pupusa de queso con espinaca: Spinich and cheese. Another healthy favorite with flavors from home.
- Pupusa de queso con chipilin: Another I didn’t love. Chipilin is a legume that is native to Mexico and Central America. In the US it’s considered an invasive species. Other common names include Chepil, Chepilin, and Longbeak Rattlebox. You have to try that for yourself, don’t you think!
Guide to Pupusas – Gourmet
Now we get into really interesting pupusa territory. If a pupusa has these ingredients, they will make the pupusa to order for you – anything you want. Just remember that if you get five ingredients, they will reduce the amount of each ingredient unless you specify otherwise. That means that a pupusa con ajo (garlic) will be delicious, but pupusa con ajo y tomate will have less of the garlic kick. Some of the gourmet ingredients you can get are aguacate (avocado), jalopeno, ajo (garlic), champinoñes (mushrooms), tomate (tomato), cebolla (onion), chile verde (green chilies) and, my personal favorite, albahaca (basil). A basil and cheese pupusa made with maíz (the corn version) is to die for and probably my all time favorite. Enjoy and try something new.
Where to Get Good Pupusas
You can get a good, basic pupusa on the street, and you’ll be happy. But when you have a GOOD pupusa, you’ll know the difference. Recommending a good pupusaria is almost pointless, because they’re in every neighborhood. Ask at your hotel or watch where the throngs of locals eat. In San Salvador, I found the epicenter of fine pupusas was in Antiguo Cuscatlán and my favorite was Pupuseria La Placiencia de Olocuilta. But I’m sure you can find something great wherever you are. But whatever you do, take this guide to pupusas and try some! You will not be disappointed.