Meatless Monday: Pupusas (with a Side of Social Justice)

NOTE: Today’s blog post comes courtesy of the UNC-Duke Area Studies Centers, which sponsored a series of WONDERFUL live webinars showcasing recipes and food traditions from other countries in a Cultural Kitchen Series. More on that later.

First, I apologize for the break in posts. I was taking advantage of summer opportunities and the relatively low COVID transmission rates to take a couple of trips outs of town. One was a spiritual retreat to the beach, and the other was a trip to Washington DC to see my father for the first time since Christmas 2019, not to mention catching up on the latest exhibits at our favorite DC museums and eating at some of our favorite DC restaurants. Plus, my son will be going back to his college next week after having stayed at home since the college facilities shut down in March 2020, so we’ve been busy with catching up with doctors appointments and finding his college stuff that’s been stored away since then.

But our trips out of town are done, my son will return to college on Monday, and with the raising danger of the Delta variant (not to mention the rumblings about the potential problems with the new Lambda variation), I think I’m going to be hunkering back at home again for a while. Which is a pain, but will probably mean more regular blog posts again…

Back to business….

So our Meatless Monday meal last night was Salvadoran pupusas, El Salvador’s most famous and beloved food item. They are grilled corn meal cakes filled with different ingredients, similar to empanadas except with corn meal instead of more of a wheat-based pastry dough. Pupusas are gluten-free, which is a great thing for my many friends and family members who avoid gluten.

Thanks to the Cultural Kitchen Series, I learned how to make pupusas from a local Master! The webinar on pupusas was taught by Salvadoran-American Durham resident Cecilia Polanco, who is the owner of So Good Pupusas, a social justice food truck that makes and sells traditional Salvadoran pupusas, with many of the proceeds going towards their non-profit Pupusas for Education, which awards higher education scholarships for undocumented students. Prior to this webinar, I had no idea that undocumented students who live and grow up in North Carolina have to pay out-of-state tuition to go to state colleges. Nor was I aware that undocumented students are not eligible for many scholarships. So Cecilia is not only broadening the food awareness of those of us who are not familiar with Salvadoran food (I’ve eaten pupusas when I lived in DC, but I’ve never had them down here) and providing favorite food to those who are from that culture, but she is supporting local Dreamers students in being able to go to college.

To see Cecilia in action and learn more about her operations, please watch this video from UNC-TV:

If you want to learn more about So Good Pupusas, or wish to donate to support the Pupusas for Education fund, go to: https://www.sogoodpupusas.com .

If you watched the video, you know what a lively teacher Cecilia is. She is my kind of cook––the kind who does everything by look and feel and taste rather than by measurements and precise recipes. All the time she was demonstrating how to make pupusas, she was talking about how embedded the food was in her memories and experiences with her family and her culture. It really was a lovely webinar, which FORTUNATELY was taped so you can watch it below:

The bottom line is, I had a fantastic teacher, so any issues with the pupusas are mine alone.

The ones Cecilia made in the webinar were only cheese, so perfect for a Meatless Monday (although beans and cheese, zucchini and cheese, and pork and cheese are other traditional favorites, plus Cecilia’s truck offers some vegan options). I tried following her instructions, but while mine were pretty good, I’m sure they fell short of hers.

The base of the dough is lime-treated corn meal that you just mix with water and maybe a little salt:

I tried to throw together enough masa and enough water to make a dough that looked like hers:

You take a ball and flatten it out, making an indentation to put in the filling, which is this case is cheese bound together with some Greek yogurt:

You fold the edges to cover the filling, then flatten the whole thing out again, eventually grilling each side as seen in the opening photo.

Pupusas are traditionally served with a pickled cabbage and carrots side dish called curtido and a non-spicy tomato salsa called salsa roja.

They were pretty good, and my son particularly liked them. But I think I made the cornmeal dough too think and didn’t put in enough filling. My issue was that when I worked with them, trying to flatten them again before cooking, I kept getting a lot of leaks. So I don’t know if that means my dough was too soft or what. I guess it’s just something I’ll have to play around with in order to get it right.

Still, it was a lot of fun to make and turned out pretty well for my first attempt. Plus, I loved learning more about Salvadoran food traditions. Cecilia was a delight and I hope I can taste her version soon to improve my own versions. I’ve sent her a small donation to support So Good Pupusas and Pupusas for Education, and hope some of my readers will as well if they are as moved by her food ministry/charity as I am.


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