The Pupusa’s Loose
Learning to master the Salvadoreña favorite with help from La Familia.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Pupusa. Just saying the word – poo-poo-sah – tilts the edges of a mouth up into a grin. And when I bite into the sealed tortilla to release tasty morsels of melty cheese and chicharron (ground, cooked pork shoulder) trapped inside, I’m beaming.
A Salvadoran favorite, pupusas are corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, loroco (a tasty green flower blossom), chicken or seafood.
At family-run La Familia Restaurant (738 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey, 373-7573), matriarch Erlinda Miguel is the official pupusa maker. That’s all she does, period – and no one else is allowed to make them.
“I’ve offered many times but she doesn’t let me,” says son Jose with a laugh. “Dad (Tomas) and I cook everything else but when it comes to pupusas, she wants to make sure it’s done right.”
You would think Erlinda has been making pupusas all her life. But back in El Salvador, pupusas are ubiquitous street food, so there was no need. Like many immigrants, Erlinda missed the flavors of home when she came to the United States 12 years ago. She started making them for her family and for the restaurant.
“It was a self-taught initiative,” Jose translates for Erlinda. “She had an idea of what they tasted like and visualized how to make them.”
La Familia sells about 50 cheese and revueltos (a mixed filling, in this case, cheese and chicharron) pupusas a week. To make revueltos, Erlinda combines chicharron and a puree of onion, red bell pepper and tomatoes in a big bowl and tosses the mixture with grated Monterey Jack cheese (this substitute for hard-to-find Salvadoran cheese, quesillo, gets Jose’s thumbs-up).
Then she scoops masa harina (a specially treated cornmeal) into a mixing bowl. Without measuring, Erlinda adds water as needed and kneads until the dough feels just right in her hands. She grabs a blob of dough and flattens it into a disc before she fills it with revueltos and shapes it into a fat tortilla. In less than a minute, the pupusa is done.
When I try my hand at it, my stiff fingers are bad imitators of Erlinda’s nimble digits. My patient teacher makes me practice by rolling and flattening my dough repeatedly. Eventually, and with some help, I manage some semblance of a pupusa.
Pupusa-making is definitely an acquired skill, but it’s a lot of fun trying. And no matter how ugly it looks, it’s still tasty; if not, La Familia is always open. Don’t be fooled by the funky Chinese restaurant decor, the food is devoutly authentic.
LA FAMILIA RESTAURANT, at 738 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey, is open every day 11am-9pm. 373-7573.
Courtesy of Erlinda Miguel, La Familia Restaurant
Don’t substitute regular cornmeal for masa harina. Jose recommends Maseca brand (ask for grade number 1), available at Latin markets. For a vegetarian filling, combine grated cheese and sour cream. Makes 25 to 30 pupusas
1 red bell pepper
2 tomatoes, chopped
5cups masa harina
4cups water (approximately)
3cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
3 cups chicharron, cooked chopped bacon or chorizo, casings removed
Place the vegetables, tomatoes first (so that juice comes out), in a blender and whirl until everything is pureed into a smoothie-like thick liquid.
Place the masa harina in a large mixing bowl. Add 3 cups of water and knead into manageable dough. Keep adding water until the dough is not sticky. Add more flour if needed.
Prepare a bowl of water to dampen hands to prevent dough from sticking.
Grab a tennis ball-sized lump of dough and roll into a ball. Flatten and pat disc from one palm to the other. Put about 2 tablespoons filling in the middle and work the edges up over the filling and form a ball again, completely enclosing the filling. Gently flatten it and lay on a large piece of plastic wrap. Cover and smooth down the top with your fingers. Remove top plastic layer and smooth edges into a disc about 5 inches wide and 1/2-inch thick.
Cook on a lightly-oiled griddle for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until brown patches form and the pupusa puffs up.
Serve warm with curtido (Salvadoran slaw).