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What Is Pupusa?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

The El Salvadorian version of the quesadilla is called the pupusa, which is made of either corn- or flour-based dough. One of the most popular dishes in this Central American country, pupusas can pack a hearty and flavorful punch. Like its Mexican cousin, it encases any number of ingredients, from cheese and meat to beans and vegetables.

Archeological evidence points to at least 2,000 years of pupusa production in El Salvador. Starting with the indigenous Pipil tribe, the dish experienced a resurgence in popularity during a suburban expansion at the latter half of the 20th century. In 2011, pupusarias dot the Central American landscape and can be found liberally scattered across several major cities abroad — particularly in the United States, where many El Salvadorians immigrated during civil war in the 1980s.


The pupusa is made by rolling a small circle of dough into the palm of one hand. Traditionally, either rice flour or a corn flour known as masa de maiz is used. Then, with the fingers of the other hand, a small pocket is made with the circle, into which goes the cheese and other fillings. Many El Salvadorians use a local cheese for this, called quesillo. The dough is then gently wrapped around the opening of the pocket and sealed, often with a brushing of egg yolk. Scissors are used to trim the extra dough, and the pupusa is squished between the hands to make a fat, flat disc.

The filling that accompanies the cheese, if any, is created from one or several traditional ingredients. Refried beans are fairly common, as is pork or chicken, either grilled or deep-fried. Chicharron — fried pork rinds — are a popular item, too. The range of culinary possibilities is wide, including shellfish, sauteed vegetables, and local herbs like cilantro or paprika.

Pupusa is a smaller version of the Eurasian tone bread, originating five millennia ago in the nation of Georgia. Those breads are typically grilled in a tandoor-style tone oven, though. The pupusa, however, can be made on a skillet or flat-top grill.

Several Central American countries like Honduras and Guatemala have adopted El Salvador's national dish. The pupusa may vary in shape or contents in different regions but the concept remains the same. In 2011, it is customary to eat this dish by hand, dipping it in an often-spicy pickled relish called curtido and in a tomato-based sauce.

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