A pupusa is a traditional Salvadoran dish made of thick, hand-made corn tortilla (made using masa de maíz, a maize flour dough used in Latin American cuisine) that is usually filled with a blend of the following: cheese (queso) (usually a soft cheese called Quesillo found in all Central America), cooked pork meat ground to a paste consistency (called chicharrón, not to be confused with fried pork rind, which is also known as chicharrón in some other countries), refried beans (frijoles refritos), or queso con loroco (loroco is a vine flower bud from Central America). The two most common pupusas are the pupusa de queso (cheese) and more popular pupusa revuelta with mixed ingredients of queso (cheese), frijoles (beans), and chicharrón. Pupusas are typically served with curtido (lightly fermented cabbage slaw with red chilies and vinegar) and a watery tomato salsa.
Pupusas are similar to the South American arepa. However, the main difference lies in that the pupusa is made out of nixtamal, whereas arepas are made out of ordinary corn dough. Nixtamal is basically the same corn dough, but it has undergone a preparation process involving an alkaline solution before cooking, which contributes to peel the grains while preserving valuable nutrients. This process was developed in Mesoamerica around 1500 – 1200 BC. Early mesoamericans used quicklime or slaked lime and ashes as the alkaline solution. Dried nixtamal is now commercially available.
The Mexican gordita is also similar to the Salvadoran pupusa, but the ingredients vary. Gorditas have generally more fill than pupusas (hence the name gordita – “fatty”) and normally have an opening at the center of the tortilla.
Pupusas, also known as Pupisio, were first created centuries ago by the Pipil tribes that dwelt in the territory now known as El Salvador. Cooking implements for their preparation have been excavated in Joya de Cerén, “El Salvador’s Pompeii”, site of a native village that was buried by ashes from a volcano explosion, and where foodstuffs were preserved as they were being cooked almost two thousand years ago. The instruments for their preparation have also been found in other archaeological sites in El Salvador.
In the late 1940s, pupusas were still not widespread across El Salvador, and were mostly localized in the central towns, such as Quezaltepeque, and cities of the country. As the population started to migrate to other areas, pupusas stands started to proliferate in the 1960s across the country and in the neighboring areas of Honduras and Guatemala, sometimes with variations in shape, size or filling. In Guatemala during the 1970s, pupusas had a half-moon shape. The half mooned shape would be considered a half eaten pupusa in the Chalatenango area, fish pupusas were uncommon, and pupusas served east of the Lempa river usually had a much larger diameter.
In the 1980s, the Salvadoran civil war forced a Salvadoran migration to other countries, mainly the United States. Therefore, pupusas became available outside the country wherever a Salvadoran community was found. In the United States, immigrants have brought the dish to Florida, Colorado, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Texas, New York, California, Iowa, Chicago, Nevada, North Carolina (especially Durham, North Carolina), Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., East Boston, New Jersey, Nebraska, Lancaster, PA, St. Paul, Minnesota, Northwest Arkansas, Cleveland, Ohio, Columbus, Ohio, Atlanta, Portland,OR, Kansas City, Nashville, TN, Las Vegas, NV, Albuquerque, NM, Tampa, FL and other locations, where there are now many pupuserías (a place where pupusas are sold and made). In Canada, pupuserías may be found in Toronto, (North York and City of York), Kensington Market, Southern Ontario, Eastern Ontario, Montréal, Québec, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Alberta and in Vancouver, BC. Since recent years pupusas can be found in some Latin American restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney in Australia.
Both at home and abroad, pupusas are traditionally served with curtido (a pickled cabbage relish, similar to German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi that comes in mild and spicy varieties) and tomato sauce, and are traditionally eaten by hand.
There are many local folklore tales surrounding the dish. These tales often tell of diverse origins or effects of pupusas on people.
Variants and cousins
A popular variant of the pupusa in El Salvador is the pupusa de arroz. Rice flour is used to make the masa, as the name indicates, and they are usually stuffed only with chicharron (chopped pork) and cheese. They hail from the town of Olocuilta, located to the east of San Salvador, but are now readily available throughout the country. They can also be found at the top of the hill fronting el Casa de Rogner/Bowen in San Salvador.
Pupusas made in the United States are typically made with Maseca (brand name of a popular commercial corn flour-masa mix) instead of fresh masa harina. Some high-end pupuserías in the United States use rice flour and make low-carbohydrate versions with wheat flour.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, pupusas variations such as spinach, pepperoni & cheese, and the ubiquitous green chile, are popular.
A Mexican dish that is similar to the pupusa is called a gordita (literally, “fatty”), but gorditas are usually open at one end. In Venezuela, they make arepas (where the dough is cooked first, and then sliced in half and stuffed somewhat like a hamburger). Colombia has its own recipe of arepas, but, unlike Venezuelan, Colombian arepas, are usually eaten without filling, or the filling is placed inside the dough before cooking. Pupusas are also found in neighboring Central American countries. Honduran pupusas often use the local quesillo type of cheese for the filling. In Costa Rica, the pupusa variant consists of two fried tortillas with white cheese between them.
Taco Cabana, a Tex-Mex chain in Texas, created a dish called the Pupusa that has no relation to the Salvadorian delicacy.
In spite of its low market price, pupusas represent an important element in the economy of El Salvador. In addition to whole pupusas, the individual ingredients are also exported; for example, in 2005 $604,408 worth of loroco was sold to the United States alone