El Salvador’s Food Culture

When I first arrived in El Salvador a bit more than a year ago, I fell under the impression that this country had very little of its own specialties. There was only one dish that really seemed to be wholly El Salvador’s, and when I read about the country I couldn’t find any traditional music, theater, dress, or other cultural identities that were only from this country. I wasn’t too surprised, this country is the size of Massachusetts after all, and with such an overwhelming influence from first Spain and then the U.S., it’s no surprise that the indigenous culture has been diluted. And what was the indigenous culture to begin with?

We could start way back with the Olmecs, who were believed to have populated this region about 4,000 years ago. But most recently, immediately prior to the Spanish invasion in the 15th Century, the Pipils lived in this land. Their culture was similar to the Aztecs with a Mayan flair, and they existed in a maize-based economy that included several cities and evidence of studies into astronomy and mathematics. You can read more about El Salvador’s agricultural history elsewhere in blog. However, I’ll say here that it appears that the main consistency between the true indigenous culture and today is the use of maize. Corn tortillas are a dime a dozen. The rest of the cuisine is a medley of outside influence.

Comida tipica, the local food, can be found in hundreds of small stands along streets and dozens of restaurants around the city. The more I explore these eateries, the more I realize just how much food El Salvador can call its own. If you know even a little about El Salvador, the one dish you would identify with this country would be pupusas. These are thick tortillas stuffed with ingredients limited only by your imagination. The most common pupusa types are cheese, bean and cheese, or perhaps chicharron (pork rind). These are made-to-order right in front of you by women who’ve set up shop on the side of the street and cook them on a portable propane grill. And pupusas, I was happy to learn, are a creation of the Pipils.

They’ll take a handful of masa (corn and water), pat it into a circle, add your filling, fold it over and pat it into a circle again, and slap it on the hot surface. Five minutes on each side, then – if you’re taking it para llevar (to go), it’s placed into a small thin plastic bag along with small baggies of curtido (pickled vegetables) and salsa (thin tomato sauce). They might add a napkin or two, and then hand you the bag. The street-variety generally cost about 25-cents each. They’re primarily a morning food, and the women who set up their pupuseria around the corner on the weekends are always gone by 10am. I’ll go over there when I wake up, have them make four pupusas, and then head home to add a free-range egg on top. And call it breakfast.

But pupusas are only the beginning of unique Salvadoran food. Head down to any street fair or other festivity and you’ll find other creations such as churros (fried dough with chocoloate), elote loco (grilled sweet corn covered with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup or hot sauce and shredded Parmesan cheese), yucca chips, plantain chips, and of course an unlimited supply of Pilsener (the “local” beer). Unique drinks include chica (maize-based), atole elote (sweet corn-based), horchata (rice-based), and refrescoes (fruit juice and water).

Two dessert items that don’t appear as they seem include quesadillas and empanadas. Yes, they are sweet. The quesadillas are a spongy cake made from cheese, not anything like a U.S. quesadilla. The empanadas are made with plantain and stuffed with either frijol (bean) or leche (milk) and then lightly fried. Despite what flavor you select, they are all coated with a thick layer of granulated sugar. Another popular dessert is Pastel de Tres Leches (Three Milk Cake), a white cake that is baked and then soaked in three kinds of milk (evaporated, sweetened condensed, and cream). Needless to say, it’s quite soggy and something I will probably pass on in the future.

Enchiladas...the Salvadoran way.

Another dish with a deceptive name are “enchiladas.” I guess U.S. Mexican restaurants have had a great impact on me, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a tower of tomato slices, boiled eggs, avocados, cabbage, carrots, and cheese stacked on a crispy fried corn tortilla. It was certainly filling, and even somewhat tasty. But still surprising.

This post was to help put into perspective the kinds of food eaten here in El Salvador. Hopefully soon I will discover just how much is actually local!

P.S. I don’t often take my camera out and about in the city due to the chance it may be taken from me, but I will try to get more pictures for this post!

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  1. #1 by Bill on August 25, 2010 - 9:38 pm

    It is interesting how food will have the same name but be not at all the same in different countries. Do you think they started off the same and just changed over time or have historicallly different dishes come to have the same name?

    • #2 by locavoredelmundo on August 26, 2010 - 7:11 pm

      I think that they probably started off with the same name. For instance, paella is originally from Spain, but as Spaniards ventured out and settled in various areas around the world, they had to alter their original recipes to match the ingredients of their new location. And of course local people might have taken up the new recipe and changed it even further, but retaining the same name. Of course, some dishes that are the same around the world have very local names. “Casamiento” here is “Moors and Christians” in Cuba and “Peas & Rice” in The Bahamas — but in all of those places, the dish is a mixture of beans (legumes) and rice, with their own local flavor.

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