After a short and beautiful day of sailing, we arrive in Bahia Frailes. A picturesque anchorage with crystalline waters back dropped by tall desert mountains. As opposed to our attempt to get to this little piece of heaven, we decided to stick closer to shore to avoid the steep chop offshore. The boat began to slow into this beautiful bay. The water took on a neon crystal blue color so clear that you could see to the bottom at a depth of twenty-five feet. We dropped the hook at Bahia Frailes, a perfectly picturesque anchorage. Daniel and I were quick to jump on a hike. It was only a mile and a half, but that mile and a half kicked my ass with 800 feet of incline (most of which was a scramble). By the time we got back to the boat, we were starving. It was time for pupusas!
A pupusa (Spanish pronunciation: puˈpusa) is a dish traditionally coming from El Salvador. I like to think of them as savory pastries, or like a stuffed corn cake. The base of the dish is a cornmeal dough that you typically find coming out of Mesoamerican cuisine. The dough consists of cornmeal and water, thus making the dish an easy go-to favorite for sailboat cooking. The dough is then stuffed with a stuffed with honestly anything you got cooking in your kitchen. It’s a great way to re-use leftovers in a fun way. Also, pupusas freeze really well. So when you’re out at sea and don’t really feel like cooking a whole meal, you can pull these puppies out of the freezer and heat them up on a skillet. I like to serve them with pickled onions, cabbage and salsa.
I first made a pupusa in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My friend Allison and her boyfriend Randy own a pupuserías called cabalito. On Allison’s birthday, they threw a little after hours party at the restaurant. Randy was at the plancha making pupusas for everyone. Being…well me, I was jealous of his spatula. I wanted to cook too. It’s not fair at all. I want to cook at the party. So I asked him if he would show me how to make a pupusa. And he did! To be honest, they are really easy to make. It’s just time consuming. But sitting in that adorable little restaurant, I fell in love with pupusas. But only really good pupusas.
Pupusas were first created centuries ago by the Pipil tribes who inhabited the territory now known as El Salvador. Cooking implements for their preparation have been excavated in Joya de Cerén, “El Salvador’s Pompeii”, site of a native village that was buried by ashes from a volcano explosion, and where foodstuffs were preserved as they were being cooked almost 2000 years ago.
Doctor Santiago Ignacio Barberena (1851-1916) in his work Quicheísmo American Folklore, found that the word, Popuza (or pupusa) meant “well united” implying a major requirement to make a good pupusa is that the dough completely encapsulates the filling, otherwise the filling would fall out. In other word, the filling for the pupusa must mean “well united” or else the pupusa would fall apart.
The first pupusas were, in fact, vegetarian and shaped like a half moon. The ingredients included pumpkin or squash, chipilin flower, blackberry, tempupo, yeast and salt. It wasn’t until 1570 that Friar Bernadino de Sahagun described, in his texts, a dish of corn cake made stuffed with meat and beans widely made through the region now known as El Salvador. That is definitely beginning to sound a bit more familiar to the pupusas we know and love today.
In the late 1940s, pupusas were still not as poplar across El Salvador as they are today. Pupuserías consisted of little huts mostly localized in the central towns, such as Quezaltepeque. As the population began migrating to other areas, the pupusa spread through out Central America. As the dish proliferated through out the region, its shape and form and filling began to change and its popularity increased. It wasn’t until 1960 when President Jose Maria Lemus decided it was important that pupuserías have a better appearance and ordered the construction of a series of concrete booths called “the corner of Cora” after the name of his wife and first lady, Coralia Lemus. This was after that the second Sunday of November to be declared National Pupusa Day, and declared pupusas to be the official dish of El Salvador.
In 1979, a conflict between the military dictatorship that ruled the country with an iron fist and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front embroiled the nation in a full fledged state of civil war that lasted twelve years. Extreme violence on both sides gripped the nation is a state of horror. The dictatorship, backed by the United States government, carried out a reign of terror targeting the civilians. Death Squads haunted the streets, killing anyone suspected of collaborating with the guerillas. The army began recruiting child soldiers, ripping families apart to further their control over a grief stricken land. In 1981, the Atlacatl Battalion, a American trained rapid response counter insurgency unit entered the village of El Mozote. Believe the people of the village to be in league with the enemy, the commander ordered that everyone in the village be killed, including the children whom he believed would only grow up to become guerillas themselves. This slaughter of roughly a minimum of 750 unarmed civilians became known as the El Mozote Massacre. Hundred of thousands fled these horrors to any country that would take them.
There seems to be an unspoken pattern amongst immigrants fleeing political turmoil. The bistro, in France, is not actually of French decent, but Russian. During the Bolshevik Revolution, Russians fled to France to seek refuge from the turmoil. Though many were once aristocratic and wealthy, now lived in destitution. To escape this poverty, they opened bistros. Through out history, one industry has always managed to embrace the lost and wandering souls of this world, food service. For as long as food has been sold, serving food to the masses has been a profitable industry. This is my theory. The hospitality industry has always needed to be just that, hospitable. Therefore, restaurants have always been a home to anyone seeking to make the world a happier place. So when the Russians fled to the bistros of France to feed themselves and the French. El Salvadoreans did the same, but all over the world. That is the beautiful thing about my industry. It’s not exclusive. It’s a club anyone can join. And the only requirement is the desire to see others’ joy. In my time in the industry, I have met people of all shapes and sizes, from all different walks of life. All of whom, dreamt of ways to dazzle those seated in the chairs at the tables before them.
The people I look up to the most were those who managed to just maintain a graceful air of love and warmth while drifting through the guests in the dining room. I used to watch my manager and friend (which I am lucky enough to call him), Josh, as he worked the room. No matter the guest, friendly or difficult, he would just flow through them like water through the rocks of a river. It was as though the California drought had spread to the people, bringing with a sour and distasteful environment. However, as Josh coursed through the crowd, his carried with him a refreshing peace and acceptance that spread through the hungry and thirsty masses waiting to be dazzled by the joys we had yet to lay before them. Flowing through him, the magic would happen. The kind of magic that keeps me addicted to the industry. The magic to make people happy.
Pupusa Leftover Madness
2 cups masa harina
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 cup warm water
Combine the masa harina, salt, and water in a mixing bowl. Knead to form a smooth, moist dough with a playdough-like consistency. If the mixture is too dry, add more water, one teaspoon at a time. If the mixture is too sticky, add more masa harina, one teaspoon at a time. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let stand for 10 minutes.
With lightly oiled hands, form the dough into 8 balls about 2 inches in diameter. Take one of the balls and flatten it a little bit. Then add a heaping spoonful of whatever you choose to fill your pupusa with and wrap the dough around the filling to seal it. Making sure that the filling does not leak, pat the dough back and forth between your hands to form a round disk about 1/2-inch thick. Repeat with the remaining balls.
Heat a lightly oiled skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the pupusas for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until golden brown. Serve while still warm with salsa, pickled onions or curtido (Salvadorean slaw).
To make Curtido:
½ head cabbage, shredded
1 large carrot, grated
½ medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
½ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup water
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
½ to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Stir well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably at least a day before serving.
 Historia de la Pupusa Salvadoreña, http://www.redislam.net/2013/01/historia-de-la-pupusa-salvadorena.html
 National Day of Pupusas, http://www.contracultura.com.sv/dia-nacional-de-las-pupusas