El Salvador, affectionately called el pulgarcito de America (the little thumb of America) due to its status as the smallest country in Central America, doesn’t usually receive the recognition it deserves, especially not in the culinary sphere. Author and publisher of Delicious El Salvador: 75 Authentic Recipes for Traditional Salvadoran Cooking, Alicia Maher, has stepped up to the plate to show the world that El Salvador may be a small country but it has big flavor. Alicia did such an outstanding job of showing the world Salvadoran flavor that she received the prestigious gourmand world cookbook award in 2014 and 2020. Since the publication of Delicious El Salvador, Alicia has published a Spanish version of the cookbook and has contributed to The Immigrant Cookbook: Recipes That Make America Great.
Before we get into all the flavors, can you give us a couple of fun facts about El Salvador?
Fun Fact #1: Pupusas are El Salvador’s national dish and even have their own song, “ A mi me gustan las pupusas.” It’s a happy and fun tune written around 1995 by Grupo Espiritu Libre; it has become a sort of anthem for El Salvador’s national dish.
Fun Fact #2: El Salvador is a surfing destination with several world-famous beaches, including Las Flores, Sunzal, and El Zonte. El Salvador has hosted several international surfing competitions recently at these locations.
What inspired you to write Delicious El Salvador?
My three sons. The lack of Salvadoran cookbooks available in the United States and El Salvador, and the desire to fill a cultural void for the millions of Salvadorans living in the United States and the world.
Your book is one of very few published Salvadoran cookbooks. Why do you think there are so few Salvadoran cookbooks available?
I think there are only a few Salvadoran cookbooks published for a couple of reasons:
In the United States, Salvadorans are still a relatively new immigrant group. It takes a couple of generations to claim and establish a community’s culture as well as to be able to preserve the history and the traditions in books.
Salvadoran cooking is still based on learning directly from the source, the expert in the family. That could be your mother, grandmother, aunt, family cook, etc.
Can you tell us a little bit about the influences in traditional Salvadoran cuisine?
The main influence is Spanish cuisine. Spaniards arrived in El Salvador in 1525. They brought new crops like sugar cane, which made its way from its native soil in New Guinea to Spain via China and India. Dishes like torrejas and local fruits like jocotes are cooked in a heavenly cinnamon-infused thick sugar syrup.
The iconic sopa de pata (cow’s feet soup) is a dish full of history and ingredients. A recipe originally from Africa, very popular in the Caribbean and Latin America. Of course, each country adds its own flavor and touch. It arrived in El Salvador with the forced arrival of African slaves to the Caribbean and Central America in the mid-16th century.
If you were asked to make one full meal, including entrée, drinks, and dessert to represent El Salvador, what would you make?
I would start with a pupusa de ayote sin queso, a squash pupusa sans cheese. For the entrée, punches en alguashte (small to medium-sized crabs cooked in tomato sauce with ground pumpkin seeds) with a side of tortillas and casamiento. To drink, a refreshing fresco de ensalada (fruit salad juice). And for dessert a leche poleada, Salvadoran vanilla custard.
This question is for the readers who have never attempted a Salvadoran recipe. Although many ingredients are readily available in most grocery stores, where can ingredients such as Salvadoran cream or plantains be purchased?
Salvadoran cream, plantains, and other ingredients for Salvadoran cooking can be found In Los Angeles in places like El Turco Meat Market on Vermont Ave and 11th st, Northgate market, Vallarta, and many local Latin grocery stores. Cacique makes a good Salvadoran style cream and is easily available at most major markets.
Many Southern Californians are not aware that Salvadoran quesadillas are nothing like Mexican quesadillas. Can you describe the difference between the two?
The common ingredient between the Mexican and Salvadoran quesadilla is the cheese, although not the same type. The differences between the two are that the Mexican quesadilla is a savory entrée cooked in a pan. The Salvadoran quesadilla is a sweet baked pastry. The texture is the mix of a muffin and coffee cake and it’s usually enjoyed as a mid-afternoon treat with a cup of coffee, para la hora del cafecito.
Now for the most important question: is it ever allowable to eat pupusas, the Salvadoran national dish, with a fork?
Traditionally they are supposed to be eaten by hand, but if the situation and occasion calls for the use of a fork then it can be allowed. The only requisite when eating pupusas is to always serve them with curtido and salsa de tomate.
Join us this Saturday! Alicia will show viewers how to prepare Salvadoran tortillas from scratch, Leche Poleada, and more. The program will be presented virtually in Spanish.