Salvadoran Recipes: Pupusas de Chicharrón and Curtido
I once drove eight hours roundtrip to Washington, D.C., in single day just to get pupusas.
The excuse I gave everyone was that I wanted to see the cherry blossoms and catch up with college buddies, but I’ll be honest: those were secondary. The real reason was it had been over three years since I had a pupusa, and I was living in what felt like a very sad, homogenous town at the time. I desperately needed something more.
Stepping into Gloria’s Pupusaría on Fourteenth Street in Columbia Heights felt like coming home—from the Selena fan art on the walls to the jukebox blasting ranchera music, but, mostly, it was that my meal was served on melamine plates with a Chinese “longevity” pattern, straight from my childhood kitchen.
In the early 1980s, D.C., and the United States in general, had just started to see its first significant wave of immigration from El Salvador following the Salvadoran Civil War in 1979. Folklorist Charles Camp described the Adams Morgan neighborhood as the new home of many new Salvadoran immigrants, “in part because of the neighborhood’s concentration of Hispanic businesses, but also because old patterns of daily and weekly food shopping are accommodating in a New World marketplace that provides comforting elements of tradition—the foods being sold and the way which they are sold, from displays to language.”
Thirty-five years later, gentrification has significantly changed the makeup Adams Morgan. The Latino hub of D.C. is now Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant, with even more development and food options if you venture out into the suburbs of Maryland.
Flipping through the Smithsonian Folklife Cookbook, it’s interesting to reflect on a time and place when pupusas had to be described as “Salvadoran Pies” to the general public. Featured in the 1985 Folklife Festival program Cultural Conservation, local guest chef Rita Torres Gonzales made pupusas de chicharrón (griddled pork-stuffed masa patties) and curtido (fermented cabbage slaw) for visitors to the National Mall that year.
As program curator Marjorie Hunt wrote, “Cultural conservation had been an underlying, if implicit, principle of the Festival of American Folklife [now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival] since its beginning in 1967. In 1985 the Festival inaugurated a program that explicitly explored [this] question from several points of view. The exhibit examined the kinds of contexts in which cultural conservation becomes a necessary concern; it documented efforts on the part of the keepers of tradition themselves to conserve their own culture in the face of a changing social and physical environment; and it explored the efforts of U.S. public cultural institutions to address the problem of cultural conservation.”
I chose to make this dish because I love this pattern: in our efforts to conserve and celebrate other cultures, bits and pieces are woven into our lives until they are inexplicably a part of what makes us us. Because how else can a pre-Colombian dish from El Salvador made in Washington, D.C., end up invoking home to the daughter of Chinese immigrants from California?
Pupusas de Chicharrón
Recipe by Rita Torres Gonzales, adapted by Kathy Phung
Notes from the kitchen: My adaptation come from watching countless videos online. For techniques on how to fill the dough, I suggest you do the same. In this video, the cook just makes two tortillas, fills one, and lays the other over it. Mind. Blown.
2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces (fatty pieces okay)
1 medium onion
1 green bell pepper
1 large tomato
2 cups masa harina
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups hot water, plus more as needed
1 cup water, room temperature
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Season the cut meat liberally with salt. In a large frying pan over low to medium heat, add pork and cook. It’s okay to start the pan with a little bit of vegetable oil if needed. Stir the meat occasionally to allow it a chance to brown on all sides. When meat is golden brown on all sides, remove meat using a slotted spoon. Remove fat from pan, reserving enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
Chop onion, bell pepper, and tomato into large chunks. Using a food processor or blender, grind pork with vegetables (in batches, if needed) until there are no visible chunks. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Return the pan with fat to medium-high heat. Cook the pork and vegetable mixture until the moisture is gone, checking for seasoning as you go. Move to a bowl to cool. There will be significantly more filling than dough. You can adjust the amount of masa by making more or freeze the chicharrón for later.
In a medium mixing bowl, add the masa harina, a pinch of salt, and the tablespoon of oil. Start by adding 1 cup of hot water to the masa, using a wooden spoon if you can’t handle the heat with your bare hands, and adding the remaining half cup as needed. If the dough is very dry and cracks easily, add water by the tablespoon until dough is pliable. Cover and let rest for at least 15 minutes.
Preheat a griddle or cast iron pan to medium heat. Ready a bowl of water and a tablespoon of oil. Divide the dough into 9 equal balls, roughly the size of golf balls. Wet your hands in the water/oil mixture. With the ball in one hand, make an indentation with your thumb and turn the dough until you have made a cup. Fill with approximately two tablespoons of filling and close off by pushing the masa up and around the top of the filling, rolling it into a smooth ball. Slowly and evenly flatten the ball into a circle, approximately 4 inches in diameter. Wet hands as needed to prevent masa from sticking to your hands.
Place the pupusa on the ungreased griddle and cook. Treat the first pupusa like the first pancake to adjust the heat. Serve with curtido and salsa roja.
Variations: pupusas are also commonly filled with refried beans, cheese, loroco flowers, or any combination of the above. My personal favorite is the revuelta, which is chicharron, beans, and cheese.
Curtido is always available for pupusas, whether it’s waiting for you on the table in a sit-down restaurant or from a stand on the side of the road, where it will come in a little plastic baggie along with some bagged salsas. If you have nothing but time, try your hand at Rita Torres Gonzales’s recipe for curtido, which includes making your own vinegar. If you’re a little more impatient like me, I’ve also provided a quick pickle recipe.
Beware, a whole head of cabbage yields almost two quarts of curtido. While it does last a while, be ready to add it onto other dishes, like rice and sausage or a breakfast sandwich with an egg patty and salsa verde between toasted bread.
Curtido (Fermented Cabbage Slaw)
Recipe by Rita Torres Gonzales
1 head cabbage, finely sliced
3 carrots, grated
1 radish, grated
1 small hot pepper, optional
Oil, for frying
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 green pepper, finely chopped
Pinch of oregano
1 peach, sliced, optional
Pinch of oregano, optional
Cover cabbage, carrots, and radish with hot water and let set for 30 minutes. Drain.
Heat oil and sauté onion, pepper, oregano, and salt. Combine with cabbage mixture. Add pineapple vinegar.
Method 1: Remove peel of pineapple. Let peel dry in the sun or over a radiator for several days. Put in a jar with water and let sit several weeks. Remove peel. Use liquid as vinegar.
Method 2: Cut pineapple in chunks, including rind. Combine in a jar with a handful of grapes, peach, oregano, and cover with water. Let sit for several days. Use liquid as vinegar.
Recipe adapted by Kathy Phung
1 head cabbage, finely sliced
3 carrots, grated
2 long green peppers, jalapeño or serrano, option
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 cup white distilled vinegar, or as need
1 cup water
Fill a large strainer with sliced cabbage, sprinkle salt liberally, and toss. Let sit over the sink or bowl to drain for 30 minutes or while you prepare the rest of the vegetables.
After 30 minutes, rinse the cabbage in water, squeezing out the excess water. In a large bowl, add all vegetables and toss together thoroughly. Add 1 cup of vinegar and 1 cup of water to the bowl. Add oregano and toss vegetables to ensure everything is coated. Taste, and adjust for salt. Cover and let sit at room temperature while you make the pupusas. Check back in an hour, tossing and seasoning as needed. Serve with pupusas.
Kathy Phung is the foodways coordinator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the demonstration kitchen manager at the National Museum of American History. Armed with a degree in anthropology and baking and pastry arts, she has worked in various food enterprises in the D.C. area as an oompa loompa, pastry cook, and butcher.