Salvadoran Cuisine — Pupusas: Stuffed Corn Tortillas

The national dish of El Salvador is undoubtedly the pupusa (recipe follows).  Corn dough in layers a bit thicker than Mexican tortillas is filled with stuffing ingredients and sealed around the edge to form disc-shaped packages.  The stuffing could be anything, but commonly includes cheese, shredded pork, beans, squash, or even plantains.  The stuffed pupusas are cooked on a hot, flat griddle or skillet until brown and the dough is cooked through.

Other Salvadoran dishes on The World Cup of Food:

Like in Mexico, Salvadoran corn dough is made from a flour ground from corn that has been treated with lime.  This loosens the corn grain’s bran shell and softens the grain, making a finer, more delicate flour possible.  This process has been in use for over three thousand years in Mesoamerica and is a big reason for why tortillas have a different texture than, say, corn bread.  Luckily we can save some time by using premade treated corn flour called masa, available in every supermarket in our area.  With masa, all that is needed for a good tortilla or pupusa dough is a little water.

We used cheese and zucchini as fillings for our pupusas, a variety called pupusas rellenas con ayote y queso.  Every once in a while it’s nice to go vegetarian for a dinner.

Pupusas

adapted from Delicious El Salvador

MAKES 12 PUPUSAS

For the zucchini filling:

  • 1 zucchini, shredded
  • 1 Roma tomato, cut into small dice
  • 1/4 of a medium white onion, cut into small dice
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • pepper to taste

For the cheese filling:

  • 6 oz Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
  • 1/4 cup light sour cream
  • 1/2 tsp salt

For the dough:

  • 4 cups masa flour
  • 2 1/2 cups water

We started by preparing the fillings.  For the zucchini, the oil was heated in one of our trusty cast-iron skillets over medium-low heat.  Once the oil was ready, the rest of the zucchini filling ingredients went right in:

pupusasquashfillingstarted

Excess moisture in the filling can destroy our pupusa dough, so the zucchini mixture was stirred frequently until almost all the moisture in the pan had evaporated, about twenty minutes:

pupusafillingcooked

For the cheese filling, the shredded cheese, sour cream, and salt were simply mixed together thoroughly:

pupusacheesefilling

On to the dough!  Four cups of masa were measured into a large bowl:

masaready

Next we added most, but not all, the water.  The rest would be added little by little until the dough was the right consistency:

wateradded

The dough was mixed with a spoon until the masa had absorbed all the water:

doughmixed

…then kneaded by hand for a couple minutes:

doughkneading

…until the dough had a smooth, even texture and formed a nice round ball:

doughresting

While you won’t find this advice in the instructions on the masa package, we like to let our masa dough rest a while before we shape it.  Resting gives the dry flour time to fully hydrate, and after a short rest the dough is usually much softer, smoother, and easier to work with.

After a rest of about half an hour, the dough was divided into twenty-four equal balls.  The easiest way to do this is to divide the large dough ball into quarters, then roll each quarter into a disc and cut into six slices each, then roll each slice into a new ball:

doughballs

Thanks to our Uncle Charlie and Aunt Marcy’s generous wedding gift, we are the proud owners of a cast-iron tortilla press.  These make the job of rolling out little dough balls a breeze, but if needed pupusas could also be formed by hand.  To prevent the dough from sticking, a piece of plastic wrap was laid over the surface of the press and a dough ball placed on top, in the center of the pressing surface:

doughballinpress

Another plastic wrap sheet was placed on top of the dough ball, and with smooth, firm pressure, the upper press surface was sandwiched over the lower one:

pupusapressed

The lever was released, revealing a near-perfect four-inch by one-eighth inch round tortilla:

pupusaroundpressed

This process was repeated twenty-four times.  In the meantime, the finished tortillas were stacked with layers of plastic wrap in between to prevent sticking.  Once all twenty-four were made, they were removed from their plastic wrap and stacked on the work surface:

pupusaroundsstacked

To make each pupusa, first a heaping teaspoon of each filling type was spread over a tortilla, leaving a little space around the edges:

pupusafillingsinplace

Another tortilla was placed on top and crimped between our fingers all around the edge to seal:

pupusasealed

As an added decorative touch that a Salvadoran cook would seldom perform (but we thought would look nice), the edges were further crimped with the tines of a fork on each side:

pupusaedgecrimped

This was repeated for all twelve pupusas.

When we were ready to cook, we heated two of our trusty cast-iron skillets over just below medium heat.  Once hot, each was lightly coated in oil and filled with three pupusas at a time:

pupusasinskillets

The skillets were covered (to help steam the parts of the pupusas that did not contact the cooking surface) and cooked for about five minutes per side until browned lightly.  The finished pupusas were served with our curtido:

pupusas

The crispy corn dough surrounding the salty, cheesy filling was fantastic.  Sprinkling a little curtido on top took the dish to a higher level of complexity, and the rich cheese, slightly sour curtido, and corn shell interacted wonderfully.

Small restaurants called pupuserias do a brisk business in El Salvador (and in certain parts of the United States and Mexico with Salvadoran populations) and it is easy to see why.  Inexpensive and portable, pupusas make for a perfect fast food item and are a national dish of which El Salvador can be proud.

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3 thoughts on “Salvadoran Cuisine — Pupusas: Stuffed Corn Tortillas”

    1. You said it, they take practice. Like a lot of posts on our site, this one documents our very first attempt at a dish. Funny looking or not, they were good! Thanks for reading.

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