El Salvador: Culinary Background

Country | El Salvador Dancers

El Salvador, once known as Cuscatlán (the land of beautiful jewels), is on the west coast of Central America, bordering Guatemala and Honduras. Seven million people are squeezed into a country the size of Massachusetts, with an additional 3 million living abroad.

A tropical climate prevails in the coastal lowlands, while the highlands and plateaus of the interior enjoy cooler, drier weather. The landscape is dotted with volcanos, and many rivers cut their way from the highlands to the Pacific shore.

Over the centuries, the native and European populations of El Salvador so thoroughly intermarried that today most Salvadorans are mestizo, or of mixed blood. As in so much of the New World, this mixing of peoples also led to a melding of cuisines. While several new ingredients were introduced by Europeans (onions, cheese, beef), the mainstays of the Salvadoran diet are still corn and beans, as they have been for millenia.

The Mainstays: Corn and Beans

Corn is ground into masa for tortillas, pupusas, and tamales. Pupusas, thick tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, pork or other ingredients, are without doubt the most famous Salvadoran food. The classic accompaniment is a cabbage salad called curtido. Tamales are special occasion food, and in El Salvador they contain a wide variety of fillings including chicken, pork, black beans (tamales pisques), yucca flowers (tamales de flor de izote), and chipilín leaves (ticucos). They are made with fresh corn and left unstuffed for tamales de elote. Tamales are usually seasoned with a variety of sauces or spice pastes (recaudos), and in El Salvador, banana leaves encase tamales more often than corn husks. They lend a deep tropical flavor to these steamed corncakes.

Beans are eaten with almost every meal and can be simmered whole or pureed and served as refritos. The red bean (frijol rojo) is the most popular, but black beans are also common and are mixed with rice in a dish known as casamiento.

Fruits and Vegetables

A wide variety of fruits and vegetables find their way onto the Salvadoran table: potatoes, yuca (cassava root), squashes, cabbage, carrots, onions, chipilín (a leafy green), tomatoes, peppers, plantains, bananas, pineapple, coconut, mangos, guavas, nance (a cherry-like fruit), and pacalla (palm flowers). Ground pumpkin seeds (alguashte) and sesame seeds thicken stews.

Meats, Poultry, Fish and Dairy

Pork and chicken are the most common meats and are used in tamales, soups and stews. Chicharrónes (crispy fried pork) fill pupusas. Beef is eaten on occasion and is commonly grilled (carne asada) or simmered with vegetables as in lomo entomatado. Salvadorans make their own variety of spicy chorizo sausage. Turkey (pavo) is popular at Christmastime and is roasted and served in the Salvadoran manner with a rich sauce and olives and capers. Fish is most often breaded and fried. Shrimp is used to make the ever popular ceviche.

Salvadorans make use of a variety of simple cheeses such as queso fresco, quesillo and duro blanco. Salavadoran sour cream, or crema Salvadoreña, is particularly luscious, with a soft yellow hue, a rich texture and a subtle tang not unlike French crème fraiche.

Desserts and Beverages

Pastries hold a special place in the Salvadoran heart. The semita is a coffeecake-like pastry often filled with a variety of jams and preserves. Salvadoran quesadilla - unlike the Mexican snack with the same name - is a sweet poundcake flavored with parmesan cheese and sour cream. Pastelitos are small baked turnovers filled with custard or fruit preserves. Children find an easy sweet chewing on small pieces of sugarcane.

Many beverages in El Salvador are based on corn. For atoles, cornflour is mixed with water or milk, sweetened and served hot or cold. Atol shuco, made with purple corn, is particularly popular. Chicha is a mildly alcoholic beverage made with fermented ground corn. Café de maíz is made by brewing toasted corn kernels with hot water. Other popular beverages are hot chocolate, coffee and fruit milkshakes called batidos. The names of the favorite Salvadoran beers are Regia, Bahia and Pilsener.

Salvadoran Dining Habits

The typical Salvadoran eats a simple breakfast of refried beans, tortillas and a little cheese with coffee. But breakfast can also be a quite substantial affair, adding eggs, plátanos fritos, a slice of ham and a large dollop of crema Salvadoreña. Lunch is usually the largest meal of the day with tortillas, pupusas or rice, a vegetable, beans and maybe some pork or chicken. A refreshing horchata, atole or other beverage helps to wash it down. The evening meal is often again a simple affair of tortillas and beans.