How to Make Salvadorian Pupusas
In an ever changing landscape of artisanal pickles, homemade ricotta and lobster rolls, Salvadorean pupusas rise above the competition to become the most popular item in Brooklyn’s ballfields and summer markets, season after season. The lightly charred and tender corn masa patties just barely contain the hot melted cheese, creamy refried beans, seasoned shredded pork or woody loroco that oozes from its center with every bite.
This weekend, I headed to Fort Greene’s Brooklyn Flea to learn directly from Cesar Fuentes of Solber Pupusas how to reproduce their corn masa patties at home. Simple to do, but hard to do well, it takes some practice to get these snacks just right.
With a culinary heritage dating to the Mayan empire and Pipil tribes of Cuzcatlan (modern-day El Salvador), Honduras and Guatemala, pupusas (from pupusawa in Pipil), have been around for years – approximately 2,000. Similar to tortillas, the dough is made from masa fresca, dried corn that’s been treated with slaked lime in a process known as nixtamilization that increases the nutritional value of the corn. The corn is then ground and made into fresh dough or dried into a powdery corn flour known as masa harina. Commonly known in the U.S. by its brand name Maseca, masa harina is reconstituted with a little warm water and used to make pupusas, tamales, and tortillas.
To make the dough, combine masa harina with lukewarm water, a few tablespoons of oil (olive or corn) and a pinch of salt.
You can follow a recipe, but according to Cesar, it’s best to tantear, or estimate the right amounts. Simply add the water and oil a little at a time, getting a feel for it by kneading the dough until it’s well combined, smooth and pliable (think play-doh).
With wet or lightly oiled hands, scoop out a small amount of dough and shape into a ball and begin to palmear, lightly pressing it back and forth between your palms and slightly rotating the dough at the same time to form a round disc, about a 1/4-inch thick.
To fill the pupusa, cup the flattened disc in your hand to form an oval and add the shredded cheese or additional fillings.
Tuck the filling down as your gather the dough at the top to form a small knot. Remove the excess dough and return to the bowl. Shape the filled dough into a ball then re-flatten into a disc by repeating the process. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Traditionally, pupusas are filled with quesillo, an artisanal cheese that can be hard to find, but a fast-melting string cheese like Oaxcan or mozzarella can be substituted. Other fillings include chicharrón, seasoned shredded pork refried in its rendered fat, refried beans, and loroco, an edible flower bud used as an herb. Combine any of the above and you have a pupusa revuelta.
No dish lasts millennia without evolving and Solber has also thrown jalapeños, sauteed zucchini, spinach and shredded chicken into the mix.
Heat a comal, heavy skillet or grill over medium-high heat. Brush lightly with olive oil and cook pupusas until lightly browned, about 4-5 minutes each side. Serve warm with curtido (pickled cabbage) and or homemade tomato sauce.
Ana Sofia Peláez covers the spectrum of Spanish and Latin American cuisine on her blog hungrysofia.com. From the rich smells and flavors of the Cuban food she grew up with to modern Peruvian causas, hearty Brazilian feijodas and delicate Mexican flor de calabaza soup, she’s always looking for her next great meal.