When I left fulltime food and travel writing about 15 years ago to teach English as a Second Language, I thought my days of culinary globetrotting were over. But as it turns out, ESL teachers work for food adventures as much as they do a paycheck.
You see, everybody eats. And just about everyone likes to talk about food, especially the food their grandmothers used to make. When you throw as many as 14 different nationalities into a classroom of 20 students, you have the perfect recipe for engaging language practice. Take it further and organize a potluck and you’ll be enjoying an unmatchable buffet of international deliciousness.
This is precisely how I discovered pupusas. A significant number of the ESL students at the high school where I started, and at Nassau Community College where I teach now, hail from Central America, particularly El Salvador. And whenever we have something to celebrate, they show up with piles of cheesy, meaty, irresistible pupusas with a side of curtido—a vinegar and sugar cabbage kraut with a spicy kick.
First, what are pupusas?
Pupusas are griddled round corn cakes stuffed—most traditionally—with beans or edible flower buds from the vines of loroco (Fernaldia pandurata) vine or chicharrón (fried and mashed pork). They are similar to tamales and especially arepas. In fact, when I first saw them stacked thickly in a bakery box lined with wax paper during a student celebration, that’s what I thought they were. But pupusas have a denser, more textured chew and a more pronounced corn taste. Also, rather than sandwiching the stuffing, the stuffing is spread throughout the dough, making every bite interesting.
They also tell some of the story of El Salvador’s past.
El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated of the seven Central American nations and the only one that has no Caribbean coastline. Salvadorians call their country El Pulgarcito de America (The Tom Thumb of America), but for a small place it has a whole lot of volcanoes, high elevations and geographical diversity. The Olmecs, the Maya and the Aztecs all established civilizations there before the Spanish invasion.
Pupusas are just starting to make inroads on Long Island, but they are an ancient dish, dating back to 9th century Nahuat-speaking Pipil people, descendants of the Aztecs, whose comales (flat griddles) and other pupusa-making utensils have been uncovered at Salvadoran archeological sites. Other sources suggest a history of more than 2000 years, to the nixtamalization breakthrough of 1200-1500 BC. By sloughing off the skins of maize kernels with baked lime and wood ash—nixtamalization—the indigenous people were able to make dough, and also release the niacin trapped within the kernels, making corn a pre-Columbian superfood that prevented pellagra and other diseases of malnourishment.
El Salvador’s recent history has been bloody. Uprisings against a U.S.-backed military government escalated into civil war in 1980 and started a mass migration to the relative safety of the north. Between 1980 and 1990, the Salvadoran population in the United States grew from 94,000 to 465,000. Things began to settle down in the 90s under U.N.-mediated peace accords, but Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and a massive earthquake in 2001 set the economy tumbling again. Today there are close to 2 million Hispanics of Salvadoran origins in the U.S., making them locked in a virtual tie with Cubans for the third largest hispanic group in the country.
As refugees from a chaotic nation, many Salvadorians come to the United States with little more than the clothes on their backs. But in their heads and hearts they carry memories that can be conjured up in a deceptively simple food.
“Pupusas are that string that keeps me tied to my Tom Thumb, El Salvador,” says Lupita Gadeas, once my student at Nassau, now a relationship banker at Chase, assistant promoter at Univision and a producer for Telemundo 47’s popular program Adictivo. “Pupusas are the longest and best relationship I have had in my life except for my family. We never fight and we are very happy together. To be in the United States without them would be tragic. Whenever I meet someone new, I introduce them to pupusas.”
Another former student, Osman Canales, founder-director of Long Island Immigrant Students Advocates and soon-to-be law student, came here when his father qualified for asylum after the civil war.
“Pupusas bring me back to my childhood when I would go with my grandmother to the market every Sunday,” he says. “We had to walk about an hour and a half to the bus and then take the bus for another half hour. It was a long distance to El Centro where there were hundreds of vendors. And the first thing we would do was get pupusas.”
Ask any Salvadorian on Long Island where to get the best pupusas and they will probably say, “Outside of El Salvador? My mom’s house,” or, “My aunt’s house.”
Fortunately I have a friend in the business. Susa Quintanilla, known as Miss Susana to her students, is the cooking teacher at Spanish All Year, a Spanish language and culture school on Post Avenue in Westbury. She has been my son’s teacher since he was just a toddler (he is now nine) and, as it happens, she is from El Salvador, makes what are perhaps my favorite pupusas ever, and recently I scored an invite to watch her make them.
“In my country you go to pupuserías to get pupusas,” says Quintanilla, who came to the States in 2003 after earning a bachelors in business in El Salvador. “The best pupuserías are on the road to the airport or in the Los Planes de Renderos, a national park where you can spend the day in the mountains. They have little kiosks where they make them and everyone buys them and sits and eats. My mother and I got curious about how they were made so we started investigating and experimenting.”
That is how she learned what a pupusa is not. She shows me how she hand mixes instant corn flour mix (Maseca) with water for the dough. “It needs to be very soft and not too dry,” she says. “At first we tried to make two tortillas and press them together like a sandwich, but that didn’t work so well; they were too thick. We observed the people in the pupuserías more closely and realized they made little balls, then pressed a dent with their thumb. You put the filling in and then fold the dough and make a disc. When we did it that way they came out right.”
The linguistic heritage of the word pupusa is is said to come from the Nahuatl popotl or “stuffed” and tlaxtkalli or “tortilla” combined to make popotlax and the Pipil word pupusawa. Then the word was Hispanicized to pupusa. Despite the “stuffed” reference, Quintanilla says fat pupusas are not good. “The pupusa is more about the filling than the dough,” she says. “Some places make it too thick, but they are tricking you. If there is too much dough, you can’t taste the filling.”
Today, Quintanilla has prepared a shredded chicken filling for the pupusas, which she is rolling and pressing with practiced ease while the modern electric griddle heats up. Like all successful immigrants, pupusas have to be adaptable. She uses mozzarella as a convenient substitute for the soft and melty Salvadorian white cheese she might use at home. When the kids come in, she hands them masa and shows them how to roll and stuff them. They dive in with gusto.
Quintanilla is a proud proponent of the value of teaching children language through the cultural yet practical experience of cooking food from other nations.
“The children develop many skills through cooking,” she says. “They learn about different foods and about their nutritional value from an early age. They develop self-esteem when they can use utensils like knives which normally they wouldn’t be allowed to use. Some children have tactile sensitivity. They don’t want to touch anything. Handling the food in this environment helps them overcome some of that. From a linguistic and cultural perspective, they expand their repertory. They learn to try new foods that they might not try otherwise. They become more open-minded, so in the future, they can go anywhere.”
I think she’s right. I won’t pretend that my son eats everything he helps prepare at Spanish All Year. The sweet stuff is an easy sell, but some of the savory he is not so keen on. He makes sure I try everything he makes though, because he is very proud of his work. When it comes to pupusas, he goes back for seconds, thirds and however many more he can cajole out of Miss Susana. And since she ignores him in English, he has to ask for it in the kind of Spanish that makes me proud.