International Cooking: Food from El Salvador

El Salvador is located in Central America, with the Pacific Ocean to the south. The land was historically controlled by a series of Mesoamerican nations, including the Mayans.

The Spanish conquered the territory at the beginning of the 16th century. El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821, only to be forcibly incorporated into the First Mexican Empire. They seceded and joined the Federal Republic of Central America in 1823, and became a sovereign state in 1841 when the federation dissolved.

What followed was a period of political and economic instability, which culminated in a civil war. In 1992, a settlement was reached in which El Salvador adopted a constitutional republic, which is still in place today. During the war, many Salvadorans emigrated to the United States, and by 2008 they were one of the largest immigrant groups in the country.

What Do People Eat in El Salvador?

Salvadoran food is influenced both by native and Spanish cuisines. One of the most commonly used ingredients is maize or corn, something that has been true throughout the country’s history.

Other popular ingredients include cassava, plantains, beans, cheese, and a range of vegetables including squash, tomatoes, and peppers. Some common spices are cumin and achiote/annatto seeds, which I think are used more for their color than their flavor. Meat is widely consumed, mostly beef, pork, chicken, and seafood.

There were a few things I wanted to make this week but couldn’t fit in, mostly because they are sweet things and those are always the hardest to fit, since I don’t want to eat them so often! Nuegados are deep-fried fritters that seem to most often be made with cassava, but they can also be made with corn or egg. They are often served with a corn-based drink called chilate, which is not sweet on its own, but it’s typically served with something sweet so I didn’t make that either. Then there is the quesadilla, which in El Salvador is a cheesecake, described as salty and sweet and often eaten for breakfast with coffee. These dishes are now on my (ever-growing) list of things to try at a later date!

What I Made

Pupusas Revueltas (Masa Flatbreads Stuffed with Beans, Pork, and Cheese)

Pupusas Revueltas (Masa Flatbreads Stuffed with Beans, Pork, and Cheese)

Pupusas are considered the national dish of El Salvador. They consist of a masa flatbread, or thick corn tortilla, and can be stuffed with a variety of fillings. One of the most popular variations is pupusas revueltas, filled with refried beans, pork, cheese, and vegetables.

Making these was quite an endeavor. I cut up some pork belly and sauteed it until it was cooked through (the recipe I used called for pork shoulder, but I already had the pork belly in the freezer and it was easier to halve the recipe that way). I put the pork in my food processor, where I processed it with tomato, green bell pepper, and onion.

I made the refried beans from scratch, starting by cooking soaked pinto beans with onion, garlic, and green bell pepper until soft. Then I put the mixture in the blender and blended until smooth, adding some of the cooking water as needed. I cooked some onion chunks in oil until the onion was black, then removed the onion and cooked the beans in the oil until they were the consistency I wanted. This method made for some really tasty refried beans, but it was also my first time making them from scratch, so I’ll probably explore other recipes at some point.

I mixed the pork mixture and refried beans with some mozzarella cheese, seasoned to taste, and that was my filling done.

To make the dough, I combined masa harina and salt with warm water. This was my main diversion from the recipe I was following, which called for cold water. I watched a video on Youtube of a woman making pupusas, and she said you need to use warm water, and that most people don’t add enough. She seemed like she knew what she was talking about so I used warm water, and more than the recipe I was following called for. I also allowed the dough to rest for a few minutes after mixing, which I think is to help give it a chance to absorb the water. This resulted in a dough that was way too wet, and it wouldn’t hold together. But I think my issue wasn’t too much water; I noticed the dough getting drier the longer it sat, and my theory is that when it cooled, it would have been perfect. I think my warm water was a little too warm. So I did add a little more masa harina, but I also kept stirring, and the dough did become easier to work with.

To make the pupusas, I made a ball of dough, then made a hollow in which I added the filling. I closed the dough around it, then flattened it, and then fried.

These were a lot of work, but luckily they were worth it as they were really good!

I also made a pickled cabbage salad, referred to as ‘curtido’, which is a traditional accompaniment. You combine shredded cabbage with carrot and onion, then pour over boiling water and let it sit for 10 minutes. You drain it, then stir in vinegar, oregano, and salt, and let it sit for a while–preferably overnight–before serving. Although the pupusas were good, this curtido, from the same recipe, had way too much oregano. It specified dried, but I think it was supposed to be fresh oregano. Something to keep in mind if you decide to make this!

The recipe I followed (for the most part) is from Tasty. The video I watched, which I found super helpful, is from La Cocina De Dani. The only reason I didn’t use the video as my recipe was that the amounts weren’t given for everything, and I needed to know amounts so that I could ensure the correct ratio of filling to dough.

For the refried beans, I followed this recipe from International Cuisine.

Pan con Pollo (Stewed Chicken Sandwich)

Pan con Pollo (Stewed Chicken Sandwich)

This is a popular sandwich in El Salvador, literally meaning ‘bread with chicken’, and it can also be made with turkey (pan con pavo).

To make this, I cooked boneless, skinless chicken thighs with Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic, salt, and pepper. To make the sauce, I blended tomato, onion, green bell pepper, cilantro, garlic, achiote/annatto, oregano, salt, and parsley. I was also supposed to include relajo, a Salvadoran spice mix which I did not have. The recipe provided a substitute, which I only loosely followed, according to what I had. I used a pinch of dried cloves, a bay leaf, sesame seeds, and a little cayenne. I didn’t blend the bay leaf, but rather I added it to the chicken with the sauce. Then I let the mixture simmer for a while.

I know I have criticized sauces like this before, where the raw vegetables are finely chopped or pureed before adding to the pan as a sauce. I think that I’ve now realized this method works well if the vegetables are blended, but not if they are just finely chopped in a food processor.

I also made the rolls for these sandwiches from scratch; they are kind of like a Salvadoran version of French bread. It was a simple bread recipe, and I think the rolls came out really well.

Once the chicken was done, I put it on the rolls along with lettuce, cucumber, and tomato. I was also supposed to add radish, but I’m not a big radish fan so I omitted it. These sandwiches are usually topped with slices of boiled egg, so that was the finishing touch. This was a delicious meal!

I got the recipes for both the bread and the sandwich from CocinAmerica:

Enchiladas (Fried Tortillas with Toppings)

Enchiladas (Fried Tortillas with Toppings)

In El Salvador, enchiladas are a completely different meal than the Mexican enchiladas most people are likely familiar with. They are made up of crispy, fried corn tortillas, and can be topped with a variety of toppings. I used refried beans, ground beef, curtido (pickled cabbage slaw), queso fresco, salsa, and boiled eggs.

I made the corn tortillas from scratch, and although I had some issues with the first ones, I got the hang of it after a while. I made the refried beans using the same recipe as I did for the pupusas. This was a really delicious meal!

The recipe I followed (altering slightly when it came to toppings) is from Food.

Plátanos con Crema, Frijoles, y Huevos (Plantains, Crema, Beans, and Eggs)

Plátanos con Crema, Frijoles, y Huevos (Fried Plantains, Crema, Beans, and Eggs)

This is a common breakfast meal in El Salvador. It consists of fried plantains, crema, refried beans, and scrambled eggs. I didn’t use a recipe; this isn’t the kind of dish where I think it’s strictly necessary and it was hard to find one anyway. Instead, I reproduced the dish mostly from photos.

It looks like the plantains are usually ripe, but since I don’t like fried plantains I used green ones and smashed the fried slices with my tortilla press to make tostones, because as far as I’m concerned that is the best way to eat plantains. The refried beans were left over from the enchiladas. Instead of crema, I used sour cream. which is a bit thicker and probably tastes slightly different as well. For the eggs, I sautéed tomato, jalapeño, and onion, then added the eggs and scrambled them with some leftover queso fresco. The vegetables are common additions; I don’t think the cheese is.

This made for a delicious and super filling breakfast!

Final Thoughts

Everything was great this week! I couldn’t believe I’d only made four dishes when I came to make this post, but I guess there were multiple recipes for some of them so it was still a lot of work. I think my favorite was the enchiladas, but it was honestly hard to choose.

Next week, I will be cooking food from England. Yes, I have decided to split up the United Kingdom for this challenge!

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