More than a decade after experiencing my first pupusa, I can still remember my wide-eyed joy as I bit into the thick, stuffed tortilla. Why had I never eaten one before, and how soon could I have another?! As I learned, the best part about El Salvador's national dish isn't just the warm, savory masa filled with melty cheese (or meat or beans), but its brilliant accompaniment called curtido. Like a sauerkraut or kimchi, this zippy cabbage relish balances the heaviness of the pupusa and makes it a simple yet satisfying meal for any time of day.
Pupusas are incredibly simple and inexpensive to make, requiring little more than masa harina (a form of corn flour) and a stuffing like cheese or refried beans. Curtido, the accompanying slaw, is a combination of cabbage, carrots, and onions in a vinegary, spicy brine. Traditional curtido is fermented, but the recipe here is simpler, requiring just a couple of hours to lightly pickle (although the longer you let it sit, the better it will be).
After mixing the masa harina with water to form a dough, roll it into balls, make an indentation with your thumb, and fill with cheese or other ingredients. (I especially like the combination of cheese with loroco, an herbaceous flower bud.) If you can't find traditional quesillo cheese, you can use queso fresco, Monterey Jack, or even mozzarella. All of these taste fantastic.
Seal the ball, and then pat it into a round disk. Fry it up until browned on both sides and serve warm with curtido. It's as easy as that!
Salvadoran Pupusas con Curtido
Makes 8 pupusas
2 cups masa harina
Pinch of salt
1 1/3 cup warm water
1 cup grated cheese: quesillo, queso fresco, Monterey Jack, or mozzarella
Curtido (see below)
Combine masa harina, salt, and water in a mixing bowl. Knead to form a smooth, moist dough with a playdough-like consistency. If the mixture is too dry, add more water, one teaspoon at a time. If the mixture is too sticky, add more masa harina, one teaspoon at a time. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let stand for 10 minutes.
With lightly oiled hands, form the dough into 8 balls about 2 inches in diameter. Using your thumb, make an indentation into one of the balls, forming a small cup. Fill the cup with 1 tablespoon of cheese and wrap the dough around the filling to seal it. Making sure that the filling does not leak, pat the dough back and forth between your hands to form a round disk about 1/4-inch thick. Repeat with the remaining balls.
Heat a lightly oiled skillet over medium-high. Cook the pupusas for 2-3 minutes on each side until golden brown.
Serve warm with curtido on the side.
• To substitute fresh masa, use 2 pounds.
• The cheese filling may be combined or substituted with refried beans or cooked pork (called chicharrón in El Salvador, but not to be confused with fried pork rind). Loroco flower buds are also a traditional accompaniment to cheese; look for them in the frozen food section or preserved in jars at Central American markets.
Makes about 4 cups
1/2 head cabbage, shredded
1 large carrot, grated
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Combine the cabbage, carrot, and onion in a large bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl and then pour over the cabbage mixture and stir.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably at least a day before serving.
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(Images: Emily Ho)