Salvadoran Cuisine — Curtido: Lightly Fermented Cabbage and Carrot Slaw

In El Salvador, the culture (and by extension the food) is heavily influenced by the indigenous Pipil people and by the Spanish, who wandered south from Mexico (or as they liked to call it, New Spain) in the early sixteenth century.  Corn comes from Central America originally, and Salvadoran cooks use corn extensively and in a variety of ways.  Seafood, and especially shellfish, preparations are popular, taken from El Salvador’s bountiful coastal areas.    The Olympia, Washington area in which we reside, small as it is (the 179th largest metropolitan area in the United States!) has at least two excellent, completely independent from each other Salvadoran restaurants to its credit, so we knew we should probably explore Salvadoran food on The World Cup of Food.

El Salvador quick facts:

  • Capital: San Salvador
  • Population: 6,134,000 (2009 estimate)
  • Notable Salvadorans: Rosemary Casals, José Salvador Alvarenga (the fishing boat guy)

Fermented cabbage dishes are found on every continent in the world, like Central European sauerkraut or Korean kimchee.  El Salvador’s entry in the category, curtido (recipe follows), is made of shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, and chilies, and is only left to ferment a few days (in contrast to several months for some varieties of kimchee, for example) and has only a mildly sour taste as a result of the brief processing time.  Curtido is served as a condiment alongside almost all Salvadoran meals at any time of day.

Similar to how sauerkraut is made, the vegetables in curtido are generously salted to draw out their moisture.  Bacteria (of the Lactobacillus genus) convert the sugars in the vegetable juices into lactic acid (a process called lacto-fermentation), which gives a sour flavor and preserves the product.

Curtido

adapted from South Beach Primal

MAKES ABOUT ONE QUART

  • 1 small head of cabbage
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 serrano chilies
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 4 green onions
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves
  • 1 Tbs died oregano
  • 1 Tbs crushed red pepper
  • 1 tsp salt

We tried something a little different for this recipe.  Most sources we found recommended cutting everything but the cabbage and carrots into a mince or small dice by hand.  We paid good money for our food processor, though, so we decided we would try to shred everything with the shredding disc attachment.  The softer things, like the green onions and cilantro, wen in first in hopes that the straggling shreds of those ingredients would get pushed through the shredding holes by the other, firmer ingredients like the carrots.  To this end, we set up the food processor and started shredding the green onions and cilantro, followed by the chiles, carrots, white onion, and cabbage.  It (a little surprisingly, if we’re honest) worked perfectly:

curtidovegetables

Next the salt and spices were added and mixed completely.  It is especially important to distribute the salt evenly so that our fermentation jar doesn’t end up with pockets of unsalted vegetables that might spoil:

curtidomixed

The mixture was left alone on the counter until the moisture had started collecting at the bottom of the bowl and we knew the salt was doing its job, about thirty-five minutes:

curtidowaterdrawnout

At this point the curtido was ready to be packed into its fermentation vessel, in our case a mason jar:

curtidopackedintojar

We had a little bit left over, and though we could have filled a half-pint jar with the remainder, we were lazy and discarded it:

curtidoleftovers

Next we used the back of a spoon to push the curtido down as far as possible into the liquid to ensure that everything was sufficiently covered and that any air pockets would be forced to the surface:

curtidoheadspace

Lactobacillus bacteria need oxygen to survive.  Since this isn’t something we do often, we don’t have specialized lacto-fermentation airlock lids to allow the curtido to breathe so we made our own.  First, a small piece of cheesecloth was folded three times (making eight layers) and placed over the jar:

curtidocoveredwithcheesecloth

The cheesecloth folded this way would let air pass through it but prevent dust, impurities, or insects from contaminating our curtido.  It was held tightly in place simply by screwing on the jar’s lid ring:

curtidosealed

All the work was now behind us and the curtido was left in a dark place (the cabinet above the refrigerator) to ferment for four days.  When we were ready to serve it, our curtido had become a little paler in color and had a mild sauerkraut odor:

curtidoready

A few tablespoons were strained out of the jar with a fork, letting the excess liquid drain back into the jar, and placed in a small bowl to serve:

curtido

Our curtido had a spicy, funky flavor while maintaining some crispness.  The oregano and cabbage are most prevalent but everything combines for a layered, complex flavor. Salvadorans eat curtido with everything, so we will probably try it with many different foods.  Already we have discovered that it is delicious with scrambled eggs on toast, in a chicken salad sandwich, or on a tortilla chip.

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3 thoughts on “Salvadoran Cuisine — Curtido: Lightly Fermented Cabbage and Carrot Slaw”

  1. Your vegetables look so finely shredded, what brand of machine/attachments did you use? I am very excited to try this recipe, I had this slaw about 6 months ago at a restaurant in Seattle and was smitten. Thanks so much for the recipe!

    1. Thanks for your question, and we apologize for the very tardy reply! We used our Cuisinart food processor with the standard shredding attachment. Thanks for reading, and we hope you’ve had a chance to make some curtido!

  2. I’m the founder/moderator for Punk Domestics (www.punkdomestics.com), a community site for those of use obsessed with, er, interested in DIY food. It’s sort of like Tastespotting, but specific to the niche. I’d love for you to submit this to the site. Good stuff!

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