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Hello! Welcome to my online travel-food-life journal/virtual scrapbook. I am a poet, playwright, journalist, editor and basic jack-of-all-trades writer. I was born in El Salvador and raised in Minnesota. I have just returned home from a year and a half in South Africa.

19 December 2011

Recipe: Pupusas, Step By Step

Hi Kids!

In honor of the holidays, I thought I'd take a whole week to share with you my favorite celebratory foods.  

First up -- and as a good Salvadoreña, was there any doubt? -- PUPUSAS!

For those of you who don't know, pupusas are El Salvador's much beloved national dish.  Ask any Salvadoran what their favorite food is and I'd be willing to bet that many of us would say pupusas.  And they are a favorite in my family for Christmas.

Essentially, they are a filled flatbread made with masa (as discussed ad nauseum previously, that is nixtamalized corn flour.)  They can be filled with whatever you want, but traditionally are made with refried beans (frijoles molidos), cheese and/or chicharrón (slow-cooked and crispy pork; carnitas that you buy in Mexican delis, finely chopped, is a good substitute.)

Pupusas are actually pretty easy to make, but if no one has taught you, it seems complicated.

But never fear, Lorenita is here:

Aaron shot all these pictures and where I saw this, I was all, "holy moly!  It's a total Julia Child, pupusa-style!"

Here's what you'll need:

Masa mix, water and your filling(s) of choice.  Here I'm using cheese and beans.  Use whatever cheese you like; you're not likely to find authentic Salvadoran cheese, so just pick whatever floats your boat.  Just make sure it melts nicely (i.e., mozzarella, gouda, jack, or oooh, pepper jack would be lovely.)  As for the frijoles, children, on this I insist.  You must make them from scratch.  Canned refried beans are OK 95% of the time, but for a real festive treat, homemade frijoles molidos are a must.  "But Lorena," you say, "I don't know how to make good homemade refried beans."  Do you think I'd leave you out in the cold like that my darlings?  Of course not.  I'm gonna give you my momma's awesome recipe this week, so stay tuned.

By the way, speaking of recipes, I have to say that this is less of a perfectly precise recipe and more of an explanation of a technique.  Remember, I learned to cook from my mother and she never measures anything, and subsequently, I usually don't either.  Anyhoo, onward!

Step one, pour warm water into your masa mix.  Go slow, adding a bit at a time.  You want a soft masa ("masa" means dough in Spanish.)

Get in there and knead for a minute or two:

Here's how you check if your consistency is good.  Take a bit of dough and pat out a flat disk.  If you see cracks at the edges like this:

Return the masa to the bowl and add a bit more water until you can pat out a disk and no cracks show up at the edges.

Now, roll a ball of dough (smaller than a tennis ball and bigger than a golf ball):

Pat it out flat:

Make sure you have plenty of masa at the edges:

Put in about about a rounded tablespoon of filling.  Here it's just refried beans, but you can put half beans, half cheese, all cheese, throw in chicharrones, etc:

Now, fold the edges of the masa back together:

Pinch the little package closed:

And roll back into a ball:

Now here is the trickiest bit of the whole operation.  You want to spin the ball with one hand while you flatten the edge with the thumb of your opposite hand:

What you are aiming for is a flat disk with a raised edge and a little bit of extra dough in the middle:

This is the secret to getting perfectly flat pupusas.  It's the same principle as making your hamburgers with a dip in the middle.  This step ensures that your pupusa won't be fat in the middle with thin, overcooked edges.

Now, you flatten the little raised-edge disk.  You do this by slapping the pupusa back and forth from one hand to the other:

This is "tortiando" and the soft slapping sounds is music to a Meso-American's ears.

This is about how thick you want them:

Nice and flat and even:

If the shape is a little wonky, just pat it a bit with your fingers to get it nice and round:


This takes practice!  Believe me, my first pupusas (which I only started making in my 20s) looked like amoebas!  Good news is that even if they're not perfectly flat or round, they still taste great!

Now they go in a good (thick bottomed) non-stick pan, or a well-seasoned cast iron griddle (how I miss mine!)  Medium to medium high heat; no oil needed.

As they cook, a little filling might ooze out (especially the cheese) and ... yey!  That mean's you've done it right!  No pupusa is done without a little crispy cheese dribbling out:

Cook them about 5 minutes a side, until they blister on both sides:

And there you go!  Awesome, homemade Salvadoran pupusas.  Get creative!  You can fill these with lots of things (a common and delicious combo from El Salvador is cheese with grated zucchini [a.k.a. courgette a.k.a. baby marrows]).  I've even heard of lobster pupusas!

Pupusas are traditionally served with a picked cabbage slaw called "curtido" -- it's kind of like a cross between Korean kimchi and German sauerkraut.  It really makes the dish, and yes, I'll be sharing the recipe this week as well.

I'm so happy to share this little bit of my culture with you all and I really hope you'll try making pupusas.  They are awesome for holiday meals but also absolutely great on a random Tuesday night  -- canned refried beans might be ok then ;o)



  1. I hope you enjoy them Sig! Let me know how it goes ... and remember that it takes practice. The first few might be tough to make/look wonky, but they'll always taste yummy! Have a wonderful Christmas!!!

  2. how do I make the sauce that goes wit the pupusa and the curtido? It's a tomato sauce.

  3. You have explained it the best I'm Dominican and have wanted to know the trick and technique for the dough and you just made it have sense. Thank you.