These vegetarian pupusas are a typical El Salvadorian dish consisting of thick fried corncakes that are filled with oozing cheese and refried kidney beans. Served up with a tangy cabbage slaw (curtido) and a flavourful salsa, these make for a serious satisfying snack or light meal.
Country Number 52: El Salvador
Believe it or not, this crazy challenge to cook a dish from every country in the space of a year partially started because of Pupusas. During lockdown, as the boredom grew, so did our creativity in the kitchen. We started playing a game called country roulette, where we’d use a random country generator to decide what cuisines we’d cook that week. I remember one of the first countries to come up was El Salvador. That is when we made Pupusas for the first time. It was shortly after this that the inspiration to take this game to the next level hit, and our crazy idea was born.
History of El Salvadorian Cuisine
El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated nation in central America, with a population of 6.42 million. It is known as the land of the volcanoes, with over 100 volcanos dominating the landscape of the small country, 23 of these being active. The country’s economy has been historically dominated by agriculture, with coffee exports being heavily relied upon for many years.
Prior to Spanish conquest, the Pipil were the predominant tribe in the region. While Salvadorian cuisine has inevitably been influenced by the Spanish after the colonisation of the country, some of the original Lenca, Maya and Pipi cooking traditions also remain. Maize (corn) is the most prominent carbohydrate in Salvadorian dishes. As for protein, seafood and meat, particularly pork, are heavily consumed throughout the country. For vegetarian options, beans and cheese are also heavily consumed. Soups are popular amongst Salvadorian of every social level as they are cheap and easy to prepare, however most feature some kind of animal protein so don’t prove to be the most vegetarian-friendly option.
Popular El Salvadorian Vegetarian Dishes
- Pupusas– The national dish of El Salvador, pupusas are hand-made corn cakes stuffed with beans and cheese
- Tamales– Corn dough pockets stuffed with fillings such as corn, cheese and dried fruit and cooked inside plantain leaves
- Empanadas de Leche- Ground plantain shaped in oval balls and stuffed with vanilla custard
- Yuca Frita– Side dish made of cassava cut into wedge shapes and fried.
- Curtido– Pickled cabbage, onion and carrot that is served as a topping with different dishes
Vegetarian rating of Salvadorian Cuisine:
Making Vegetarian Pupusas with Curtido and Salsa Roja
Ever since we first tried Colombian arepas, we were hooked on Latin American style corncakes. The dough for arepas and pupusas is very similar, both consisting of corn masa flour, salt and water. However, while you slice open arepas and fill them up like a burger after cooking, pupusas are filled with ingredients and then cooked. This does make them a little more fiddly to make, but the effort it worth it once you take a bite into the corncake and have all the delicious fillings oozing out. While pupusas can be stuffed with all kinds of things, we went with the classic vegetarian rendition, which is filled with melty cheese and refried beans. In our recipe, we also included the two typical condiments that come with the El Salvadorian dish- curtido, which is a tangy slaw, and salsa roja, a fresh tomato-y sauce.
How to make Vegetarian Pupusas
Pupusas take a little time to prepare, but once you get the hang of them, you’ll realize they are pretty easy to make. Our advice is to make the curtido and salsa roja first so everything is ready to go once you start cooking the pupusas.
1. Make pupusa dough by mixing together corn masa flour, salt and 2 1/2 cups of warm water for about a minute, until dough is thick and sticky. If mixture is too dry, add extra water. Rest for 15 minutes while you prepare the filling.
2. Make refried beans by cut onion half into wedges, then separate layers to form petals. Heat 1/4 cup oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until browning on each side. Transfer onion to blender, leaving the oil in the pan. Add the kidney beans and liquid from the can and blend till a smooth puree is reached. Reheat oil in pan over medium heat then transfer bean mixture in. Season with salt, cook for 7 minutes then set aside in a bowl to cool. Once cool, mix in cheese.
3. Make pupusas by dividing dough into 12 balls. Working one at a time, place a dough ball into your palm. Shape the ball into a well and fill with 2 tablespoons of bean mixture. Pinch dough together to fully enclose the filling and gently flatten into a disk. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Cook a few Pupusas at a time for 3 minutes per side or until browned in spots.
Ingredient notes for Vegetarian Pupusas
- Corn masa flour- It’s absolutely essential you get the right flour to make pupusas. Regular cornmeal won’t work (if you want to know more about the differences, take a look at this article). Masarepas generally can’t be found in a normal supermarket. We purchase ours from our local Argentinian store. You might need to seek out a specialty store in your area or purchase the flour online. Brands to look for include Harina PAN, Areparina, Harina Juana, and Goya.
- Mozzarella cheese– We used mozzarella cheese for this recipe, however you can also use queso Oaxaca or any other cheese that melts well.
Serving suggestions for Pupusas
As mentioned above, pupusas are best served with the traditional El Salvadorian condiments of curtido, a tangy slaw, and salsa roja, a fresh tomato-y sauce.
Other vegetarian South American dishes to try
- Colombian Arepas with Halloumi, Avocado & Refried Beans
- Chilean Fried Pumpkin Bread (Sopaipillas)
- Vegetarian Empanadas with Mushroom & Cheese
Vegetarian Pupusas with Curtido and Salsa Roja- El Salvador
- 1/2 head cabbage (finely shredded)
- 1/2 red onion (thinly sliced)
- 2 carrots (shredded)
- 1 jalapeño (sliced)
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 4 tomatoes
- 1/2 onion
- 1/2 jalapeño
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 cup water
- 1 vegetable stock cube
- 3 cups corn masa flour
- 2 1/2- 3 cups warm water
- 3 tsp salt
- ½ white onion
- ¼ cup vegetable oil (divided)
- 1 can red kidney beans
- 1 cup mozzarella
To make curtido:
- Place all ingredients into a bowl and allow to marinate for at least an hour.
To make salsa roja:
- Blend all ingredients except the stock cube in a food processor.
- Transfer to a medium saucepan, crumble in vegetable stock cube and bring to a low boil. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until liquid has been reduced.
To make Pupusas:
- In a large bowl, mix together corn masa flour, salt and 2 1/2 cups of warm water for about a minute, until dough is thick and sticky. If mixture is too dry, add extra water. Rest for 15 minutes while you prepare the filling.
- Cut onion half into wedges, then separate layers to form petals. Heat 1/4 cup oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until browning on each side.
- Transfer onion to blender, leaving the oil in the pan. Add the kidney beans and liquid from the can and blend till a smooth puree is reached.
- Reheat oil in pan over medium heat then transfer bean mixture in. Season with salt, cook for 7 minutes then set aside in a bowl to cool. Once cool, mix in cheese.
- Divide dough into 12 balls. Working one at a time, place a dough ball into your palm. Shape the ball into a well and fill with 2 tablespoon of bean mixture. Pinch dough together to fully enclose the filling and gently flatten into a disk.
- Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Cook a few Pupusas at a time (depending on how much space in the pan there is) for 3 minutes per side or until browned in spots. Serve warm with salsa roja and curtido.
Did you make this recipe? We’d love to know! Tell us how it went in the comments below or tag us (@gourmetvegetarians) in your photos on Instagram.
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