How a sublime Central American dish landed on Long Island.
I never thought I would discover the national dish of El Salvador on the North Fork of Long Island. But all hail the pupusa, a delicacy now available in two small restaurants (and in Latino home kitchens) east of Riverhead. Related to the taco, the tamale, and the gordita-in that it involves the packaging of meat or beans or cheese or vegetables in a corn-meal envelope-the pupusa has its own sublime identity. And now East End gringos can savor it at either Rinconcito Hispano in Greenport or La Cascada in Southold.
La Cascada, 46455 Route 48, in a shopping center, is a family enterprise. Jorge Torrento welcomes diners and pitches in when Sonia, his wife, needs help in the kitchen. David, a 9th-grader at Southold High School, takes orders and serves some afternoons and weekends, and little Fernando can often be found perched atop a stool surveying the diners. The restaurant serves a mix of Latino workers and families and Americanos. “We sell about 200 pupusas a day and the quesadillas are also very popular,” says Jorge. His is a classic immigrant story: the family arrived in the U.S. five years ago, he went to work immediately at the Southold IGA, and he and Sonia saved enough to open the pupusería in April 2009.
Rinconcito Hispano, in Sterlington Commons in Greenport, has been around for much longer. For Señora Marina Recinos, the proprietor and cook (with assistant Claudia Monroy), the pupusa has been a lifelong commitment; she learned to cook from her aunts, starting when she was about five, and when she came to the U.S. 27 years ago she started a pupusería in Queens, where her two daughters are now in charge. She introduced the North Fork to pupusas a decade ago and now serves other Salvadoran specialties as well. She likes to use local products. “In the summer I get cabbage, tomatoes, onions from farms in the area,” she says, “and in the cold months ingredients come from the city.” The loroco, however, a fragrant Guatemalan flower used in some pupusas, must be flown in from El Salvador.
Salvadorans sometimes call their tiny country Pulgarcito, the “little thumb” of Central America. Slightly smaller in area than Massachusetts but with a slightly larger population, it is beautiful but poor. Along with other countries in the region (except for Costa Rica), outmigration is high, and the New York metropolitan area has become a destination for Salvadorans fleeing civil war, earthquakes and volcanoes, or recent changes in the global economy that make the traditional cultivation of corn and beans no longer profitable.
Many Salvadorans have found their way to the East End, working in fields and vineyards and construction sites. They also work in kitchens, and, luckily for the workers and for North Fork foodies, they have brought with them a delicacy so special to Salvadorans that the country honors it with a holiday-the Día Nacional de las Pupusas, the second Saturday of November. In some towns the celebration includes parades and prizes for the glutton who can eat the most pupusas in one sitting; the record, according to one source, is 51. In 2005 Salvadoran legislation designated the pupusa the country’s national dish, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared it fundamental to the Salvadoran diet.
A pillow of thick corn meal, the uncooked pupusa is stuffed with a variety of ingredients-shredded pork called chicharrón, or beans and cheese (the slightly tangy quesillo), or loroco, whose buds look, as Jorge Torrento puts it, “like tiny asparagus.” Or you can order your meal with all of the above, in which case you ask for “revueltos.” (For the botanically minded, the loroco is part of an herb, Fernaldia pandurata.) Once stuffed, the pupusa is flattened by hand into a four-inch disk and cooked on a comal, a large, round metal plate suspended over an open fire in the markets of El Salvador. (Youtube users can see the process, including photos of happy eaters in the market accompanied by an infectious musical invitation, by accessing the video “Las Pupusas de Tonacatepeque, El Salvador.”) In North Fork kitchens the stuffed pupusas may also be cooked at home on a flat cast-iron pan or in the pupuserías on a griddle: Señora Recinos prefers the comal for small orders, the griddle for larger ones.
The result is surprisingly light (and greaseless); this senior citizen has no trouble downing two for lunch, and a growing boy could easily put away twice that number. Crucial to the enjoyment of the pupusa is curtido, a gently pickled cabbage slaw sprinkled atop the disk, and a thin tomato sauce for dipping or dousing. In some Salvadoran towns the pupusa is made of rice flour, and occasionally it is stuffed with ingredients like bacon or a leafy legume called chipilín.
The provenance of the pupusa is uncertain. Is it really a pre-Columbian snack? A government historian says so. Did it originate in Guatemala or in the Ahuachapán (eastern) or central sections of El Salvador? The received wisdom is that as early as 1570 a Spanish priest who was also a historian found it being consumed by indigenous people. Señora Recinos personalizes the history with legend: a mother was very poor and her children were hungry. Although she had no money to buy food for them she had scraps-a bit of cheese, a morsel of meat and a few beans. She patted them all together in a tortilla, fired them on a comal, and had something wonderful for her children and then for her neighbors-and now for the world.
The ubiquity of the pupusa in Central America is fairly recent. Its popularity seems to have been limited to the central towns and villages of El Salvador until the mid-20th century. But these days the snack is a significant contributor to the Salvadoran economy; according to the Economic Ministry, its sale brought in $23 million between 2001 and 2003 and employed at least 25,000 workers. Presumably this doesn’t include the jobs provided or the income generated in the U.S. as diners in cities like Los Angeles, where there are approximately 500,000 Salvadorans, embrace their national dish.
What should you drink with pupusas? At night, chocolate or coffee, during the day beer (not available at either North Fork restaurant) or horchata, a common Central American beverage that you can get at the Ronconcito. Horchata is made of rice, morro seeds (a kind of hard relative of the calabash), caramel and sugar-toasted and ground, mixed with milk. At La Cascada, options include several kinds of liquados (fruit juices with milk, Latin smoothies) and-most exotic-marañon, made from cashew milk.
Fortunately for us, the Torrentos and Señora Recinos are happy on the East End, which they find peaceful. They have adapted to local resources without losing quality, using widely available Maseca corn flour to bypass the traditional, arduous process of drying, grinding and soaking corn to make the masa. And all over the North Fork Salvadoran women like the sisters Maria Campos and Margarita Azama of Greenport are making pupusa dinners for their families and friends on weekends. Central America’s delicious comfort food is here to stay.
Diana Gordon teaches at the City University of New York when she is not eating on the North Fork.