Salvadoran Pupusas con Curtido (Masa Cakes with Cabbage Slaw)

updated May 16, 2023
Salvadoran Pupusas con Curtido
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A round green plate contains masa cakes topped with freshly chopped cabbage slaw
Credit: Emily Han

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.

What Is Curtido?

Curtido, the accompanying slaw, is a combination of cabbage, carrots, and onions in a vinegary, spicy brine. 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.

Credit: Emily Han

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).

How to Make Pupusas

Pupusas are incredibly simple and inexpensive to make, requiring little more than masa harina (a form of

corn flour

Credit: Emily Han

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, 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!

Credit: Emily Han

Salvadoran Pupusas con Curtido

Makes 8 pupusas

Nutritional Info


    For the curtido (makes about 4 cups):

    • 1/2

      head cabbage, shredded

    • 1

      large carrot, grated

    • 1/2

      medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

    • 1/2 cup

      apple cider vinegar

    • 1/4 cup


    • 1/2 teaspoon


    • 1/2 teaspoon

      brown sugar

    • 1 teaspoon

      dried oregano (preferably Mexican)

    • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon

      red pepper flakes

    For the pupusas:

    • 2 cups

      masa harina

    • Pinch of salt

    • 1 1/2 cups

      warm water

    • 1 cup

      grated cheese: quesillo, queso fresco, Monterey Jack, or mozzarella

    • Vegetable oil


    1. First, make the curtido: 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.

    2. Make the pupusas: Combine the 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.

    3. 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.

    4. Heat a lightly oiled skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the pupusas for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until golden brown. Serve while still warm with curtido on the side.

    Recipe Notes

    You can substitute 2 pounds fresh masa for the dough in this recipe.

    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.