Imagine a fresh, corn tortilla, warm and supple, emitting the toasty fragrance of corn masa, mixed into a dough and grilled on a skillet until it’s soft with a few dark marks from the griddle. Now imagine it stuffed with creamy cheeses and minced vegetables, topped with salsa and a crunchy cabbage mixture somewhat akin to picco de gallo. That’s a pupusa.
The first time I tasted one of these delicious pockets was at my friend Rosario’s El Salvadorian restaurant. Ryan and I walked down one day in the heat of the summer for a light lunch, bantered with Rosario over the counter, and ordered her recommendation, which was, without a pause of hesitation, pupusas. After my first bite, I was itching to learn the recipe. Months later, I coaxed Rosario into teaching me, and she graciously invited the whole family over for a feast. I think we rolled out the door afterwards.
Rosario, who moved from El Salvador to San Francisco in the mid 1980s, grew up eating pupusas every day. Street vendors sold them everywhere, and she would often buy them for breakfast and dinner. She didn’t learn to make them at home, though. Her sister-in-law, whom Rosario called “Tita,” owned a little store near a bus terminal and turned pupusas out to hungry travelers in droves. As a 12 year old, Rosario loved watching her Tita make the pupusas—“as fast as a machine, and very tiny, like cookies”—and begged her mother to let her go to the store to learn. She helped out three times a week, and Tita taught her to make the delicious stuffed snacks in return.
Years later in San Francisco, missing home and unable to find an authentic pupusa, Rosario started making them again. Soon she was in high demand. She started teaching women to make them at church and then started selling them out of her kitchen on Saturdays to hungry friends and neighbors. Her favorite, though, was just to invite over a crowd of people and cook as many pupusas as they could possibly eat. “I would have parties,” she exclaims throwing her hands up and snapping her fingers. “For me, that’s it: parties, dancing, and food!” And it’s not hard to imagine crowds flocking to any place where Rosario is making pupusas, that’s for sure.
Because Rosario doesn’t measure when she cooks, I had to do quite a bit of tinkering to nail this recipe down. On top of that, she uses some unusual ingredients, so we worked together to find alternatives that still preserve the authentic taste. Rosario’s curtido recipe—the cabbage mixture that tops the pupusas—is a secret, so this is my version. It’s not as good as hers, I admit it, but I think you’ll still love the dish. Last of all, I like adding salt to the masa dough, but Rosario does not add any to hers.
Vegetarian Meal with Meat Option: Pupusas can be stuffed with a number of different fillings. I’ve chosen a vegetarian option, but Rosario also makes a version with shredded pork. You could use any type of shredded meat in addition to the filling described below, or replace it entirely with a meaty filling. Be creative!
Speed it Up: As you can see from the headnotes, the curtido and cheese mixtures have to be made a day ahead. The masa dough takes just a few minutes to mix up, so this is really quite quick on the day you make it.
Special Diets and Allergies: Vegetarian, nut free, soy free, wheat free. There are a million variations you could do here with fillings, and could quite easily make this dairy-free or vegan. I tried a few with seasoned, mashed black beans and cilantro inside and avocado on top, and thought they were excellent. Be careful not to make the bean mixture too runny if you go this route.
Pupusas: Cheese-Stuffed Tortillas
Makes about eight 6” pupusas
These warm, cheese-stuffed delights are like a calzone made from a corn tortilla. They are soft and chewy on the outside, creamy and gooey on the inside. Topped with salsa and curtido—a crunchy cabbage mixture—they make a great mid-day snack or a delicious meal served with rice and black beans. Eat them straight off the griddle, or warm them up the next day in the microwave. Be forewarned, though, that they aren’t any good cold. You’ll also notice they’re quite good for you—they dough requires no added fats, and you don’t even need to oil your cooking surface.
I just used a store-bought salsa here, and any type that you like would work well, although I might avoid a fruit-based salsa and stick with a more traditional version. The cheese mixture and curtido are best prepared the day before. The cabbage and carrot needs time to soak up the flavors and pickle slightly, and the cheese has to soften in the vegetable juices. Otherwise, it will be too hard and will poke through the dough when you try to form the pupusas. Note that you can also be pretty flexible with the combination of cheeses. If you can’t find cotija, use all queso fresco, or try subbing other Mexican cheeses, like Monterey.
3/4 C queso fresco
1/4 C cotija
1/2 – 3/4 C grated zucchini
1/2 C fresh spinach, minced
1/4 t salt
- Crumble the cheese.
- Add all of the other ingredients and mix. Cover and let sit in the fridge over night or until the cheeses soften.
2 C shredded green cabbage
2 T – 1/4 C minced yellow onion
1 C grated carrot
2 T lemon juice
1/2 t oregano
1 T apple cider vinegar
1/2 t salt
- Mix all of the ingredients together. Cover and store in the fridge overnight or up to two days.
2 1/4 C instant masa flour
1 1/2 C water
1/4 t salt (opt.)
- Mix the masa flour and salt. Slowly add the water and stir until the mixture forms a soft dough that’s supple and soft, but not too sticky. (You can do this in a standing mixer too.)
- Begin assembling the pupusas right away or the dough may dry out.
Salsa of choice
- Preheat an electric griddle to 400 F.
- With wet hands, form a ball of the masa dough the size of a child’s fist (about 1/3 C should be the right amount).
- Pat the dough between your hands until it’s a disc slightly larger than your palm.
- Scoop 2-3 T of the cheese filling onto the middle of the dough, then fold the edges in to completely cover the filling, creating a smooth ball of dough with none of the filling showing.
- Rewet your hands if necessary, then begin to pat the ball into a disc, rotating it as you work, until it’s about 1/2” thick and 6” in diameter. Make sure all of the filling is completely enclosed by the dough, with none peaking out.
- Place the pupusa on the hot griddle and cook for about 4 minutes on each side, or until the outsides get small singe marks where bubbles in the dough brown on the griddle.
- Place the cooked pupusas on a plate and cover with a kitchen towel to keep them warm until all of the pupusas are cooked.
- To serve, place a pupusa on a plate, ladle salsa on top, then spread a few spoonfuls of the curtido over it all. Eat warm.