The perfect pupusa is surprisingly light with a soulful center | Food Feature | Indy Week
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The perfect pupusa is surprisingly light with a soulful center 

Part of the pupusa process at El Cuscatleco

Photo by David A. Ross

Part of the pupusa process at El Cuscatleco

In a Miss Universe-style pageant of national dishes, the pupusa would be a regional unknown. Lacking the high gloss of French patisserie or the austere elegance of Japanese sushi, it would slowly emerge from the pack, winning converts with a combination of warmth and modesty.

Hailing from El Salvador, the pupusa is a sometimes cracked, sometimes lumpy masa pancake without even the delicate lacing of a properly made buttermilk pancake or crepe. The love affair begins with two realizations: 1) However sodden and heavy it may look, the masa carapace is actually thin, crisp and light, and 2) It envelops an oozing center—does "soul" go too far?— of finely minced pork, vegetable and cheese.

Classically paired with a tart coleslaw (curtido) and a smooth, onion- and pepper-infused salsa, the pupusa becomes a fairly involved concatenation of flavors and textures.

El Cuscatleco, a Durham/Cary mainstay, is the local source for this incarnation of comfort food. Co-owner Salomon Rivas says the restaurant serves 200 to 500 pupusas each day, with customers sometimes ordering stacks of 20, 30 ... even 50.

"The pupusa originated in El Salvador," says Rivas, with justifiable national pride. "They do pupusas in Honduras, but you really must go to El Salvador. They are like hot dogs in the U.S. They sell them on the street—they're everywhere."

Rivas emphasizes that a good pupusa depends on balanced flavors and plenty of filling, and that it should be eaten, as in El Salvador, with the hands.

El Cuscatleco's Pupusas with Curtido and Salsa

Makes 9

The Braised Pork

450 grams (about 1 lb.) pork butt

1/4 tsp. cumin

1/4 tsp. garlic powder

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. oregano

Cut pork into 1-inch cubes. Glaze a non-stick pot with canola oil and brown the pork. Add remaining ingredients and 2 1/2 cups water. Braise at medium heat until meat is tender and water has evaporated, 45–50 minutes. Finish by briefly re-browning the pork in its own fat. The raw pork should yield 300 grams of cooked pork.

The Pupusa Filling

60 grams green bell pepper (about 1/4 pepper)

60 grams tomato (about 1/4 small tomato)

60 grams yellow onion (about 1/4 small-medium onion)

1 Tbsp. Knorr-brand chicken-flavored broth mix (powdered bouillon)

1/2 tsp. achiote molido (ground annatto seed)

1/2 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/4 tsp. chili powder (or to taste)

1/4 tsp. oregano

300 grams braised pork (see above)

400 grams (14.1 oz.) whole-milk low-moisture mozzarella, shredded

Roughly slice the vegetables. Glaze a frying pan with oil. Add pepper, tomato, onion and spices. Sautee the vegetables until they soften, about 10 minutes, adding small quantities of water to create a sauce that just coats the vegetables. In a food processor, puree the braised pork and the vegetable mixture, aiming for a consistency that is smooth but not pasty, spreadable but still fibrous. In a large bowl, combine the pork-vegetable puree and the cheese, kneading until uniform. Cover and refrigerate for up to two days until ready to use.

The Curtido (Coleslaw Garnish)

450 grams green cabbage (about 1/4 of a standard head)

100 grams yellow onion (about 1/4 of a smallish onion)

50 grams carrot

2 Tbsp. white vinegar (or to taste)

1/2 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. sugar

Julienne the cabbage, onion and carrot. Parboil cabbage for one minute. Drain and rinse with cold water. Combine vegetables and season with remaining ingredients.

The Salsa

125 grams yellow onion (1/4 of medium-large onion)

50 grams green bell pepper (1/4 of medium pepper)

1 can (14.5 oz.) diced or whole peeled tomato (preferably Muir Glen brand)

1/2 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. Knorr-brand chicken-flavored broth mix

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. olive oil

Roughly chop the onion and pepper. Sautee in canola oil until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato and cook for 2 minutes. Transfer to a blender and puree. Return the puree to the heat and add the spices and salt. Add water as necessary to create a sauce that is pourable but not runny. Finish with the teaspoon of olive oil (for sheen).

To Complete the Pupusas

1 recipe pupusa filling (see above)

453 grams (1 lb.) Maseca-brand masa harina

680 grams (3 cups) room-temperature water

Divide the filling into nine portions, each weighing 85 grams. Roll each into a ball (there will be about 40 grams left over). Combine the water and masa harina, kneading by hand until a moist, baby-soft dough forms. With oiled hands, pluck a 115-gram dough piece and pat it into a 5-inch disk. Place a ball of filling in the center. Fold the sides of dough over the filling, stretching and pinching fully to enclose. Roll the mass into a neat ball. Again with oiled hands, gently pat the ball into a 5.5-inch disk, repairing any tears. Generously coat a large cast-iron griddle with oil. Place the pupusa on the griddle and cook 4–5 minutes per side, until golden and lightly charred. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Serve hot, with salsa and a thatch of curtido.


Among readily available supermarket brands, I recommend Sorrento's whole-milk mozzarella. Do not mistake fresh mozzarella for low-moisture. If the cheese is weepy, you have the wrong cheese.

The balls of dough-enclosed filling can be loosely wrapped in plastic and refrigerated overnight. Flattened and griddle-fried the next day, they retain much of their quality. Previously fried pupusas can be reheated on the griddle or microwaved to good effect.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Beauty from the inside"



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