Everybody loves Pupusas. These corn cakes can be found in most cities across the US today, at locations known as Pupuserías. They’re one of the best street foods around, warming the belly with its signature combination of hearty corn/beans/cheese, tangy Curtido slaw, and spicy tomato salsa.
The story of this dish is surprisingly complex. Pupusas were first developed in El Salvador or Honduras as far back as 2,000 years ago, and traditionally stuffed with squash blossoms or herbs. The introduction of Old World foods (mainly beef, chicken, and dairy) resulted in more elaborate preparations of this humble dish. By the mid 20th century, pupusas had spread throughout El Salvador and neighboring Honduras and Guatemala. When civil war in the 1980s displaced huge portions of the population, many Salvadorans relocated to the US, and pupusas followed.
The type of corn flour used to make this dish is masa harina — ground nixtamalized corn. This is the same process that creates hominy, and masa harina can be used to make tamales, tortillas, and gorditas. Bear in mind that this is not the same as cornmeal, which is ground dried maize (i.e. hasn’t undergone the nixtamalization process) — cornmeal is what you would use to make cornbread or fried fish. Finally, masa harina is often confused with masarepa, which is the pre-cooked cornmeal that is used in making Arepas.
Pupusas - Salvadoran Stuffed Corn Cakes (Gluten-free)
2 cups masa harina
1 ½ cups warm water, more as needed
¼ tsp salt
1 cup shredded cheese (quesillo, queso fresco, or Monterey Jack)
1 cup cooked beans or refried beans
1 tsp avocado oil, more as needed
Curtido (recipe below) to serve
Salsa Roja to serve
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the masa, water, and salt; knead to form a smooth dough, adding more water as needed to create a consistency not unlike moist playdough. Cover with a moist towel and set aside for 10 minutes.
2. Using wet hands, form the dough into 8 balls, about 2 inches in diameter; using your hands, form a deep indentation in the center of one of the balls, then fill with about 1 tbsp each of the cheese and beans. Carefully form the dough so that it covers the filling, then pat the dough to form a round disk about ¼” thick. Repeat this process for the remaining process.
3. Warm the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, then add a few of the pupusas and toast until golden brown and spotty, about 3 minutes per side, then serve with Curtido (recipe below) and Salsa Roja.
Curtido (Pickled Cabbage Slaw)
Yields: 2 cups
Prep time: 10 mins
Cook time: 20 mins
½ onion, minced (about ½ cup minced)
½ head green cabbage (about 1 lb), shredded
1 carrot, grated (about ¼ cup grated)
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tsp salt, more to taste
1 tsp coconut palm sugar, raw organic sugar, or honey
1 tsp fresh chopped oregano leaves
1. Soak the onion in cold water for 10 minutes to minimize its astringency, then drain and pat dry. Combine with the remaining ingredients, then cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes to allow the flavors to marry.