Friday, January 26, 2007

The Day My House Became a Pupuseria

The first time I ate a pupusa I was living in San Francisco's Mission District. I discovered that just one block away (at 1142 Valencia Street) was El Majahual Restaurant, a tiny Salvadorean and Colombian restaurant and pupuseria. I was living on a tight budget and at just $1.65 each, pupusas were just about the cheapest and most filling healthy meal I could find. I recall reading an article that said the rule for making a meal of pupusas is "one for a snack, two for lunch, three for dinner." Sounds about right to me. It was easy to fall in love with these thick El Salvadoreño corn tortillas crafted out of masa harina, stuffed with cheese, beans or meat and topped with a spicy cabbage salad known as curtido.

This weekend my house became a pupusa factory. My friend Melanie came over for dinner, and we ate stacks upon stacks of pupusas con curtido de repollo. I filled some with a combination of goat jack cheese and cotija*, while others were stuffed with both cheese and refried beans. We ate them with salsa, curtido, and slices of ripe avocado. I had so much masa (dough) left over that I made more for my breakfast guest the next day... and yet another batch when my aunt and uncle paid me a surprise visit later that afternoon. I made extras for my own dinner the following day, plus a batch for some dear friends. There were pupusas coming out my ears!

Masa harina is the extremely finely ground corn flour that makes a silky dough that can be used for corn tortillas, pupusas, and other Central American delicacies. The manufacturer of Maseca brand masa harina has verified that it is gluten-free and was made in a facility that does not process wheat. Maseca is widely available in the US and is inexpensive. For more information on Central American products that are gluten-free, check out the Celíacos de México blog (it's in Spanish). There are no good substitutes for masa harina - Corn flour is the closest in texture but not a match, and corn meal will give you mealy, greasy, tough results. So stick to the real thing.

Folks who are vegan, lactose intolerant, or casein-free, can omit the cheese and just stuff the pupusas with refried beans. You can serve an army with these recipes, so cut them in half if you're cooking for one or don't want leftovers!


5 cups masa harina flour
4 cups water
1 cup canned gluten-free, vegetarian refried beans
1 1/2 cups cotija, grated (or other hard, mild white cheese)
1 1/2 cups monterey jack or other meltable white cheese, grated
Vegetable oil

In a medium bowl, mix the two cheeses together and set aside. Pour masa harina into a large mixing bowl. Pour the water in slowly, kneading with your hands. Add water a tablespoon at a time until the dough forms a cohesive ball. The dough should be dry enough to handle but moist enough that it doesn't crack at the edges when you press down on it. Allow dough to rest for 10 minutes.

Take a small handful of dough and roll it into a ball about the size of an egg or a little smaller. Flatten it between your palms until it is about 1/3 inch thick. For cheese and bean pupusas, put a generous pinch of cheese and a heaping 1/2 teaspoon of refried beans at the center of the disk of dough. For cheese-only pupusas, use more of the cheese. Beans-only pupusas can take about a teaspoon of beans. After placing the filling at the center of the pupusa, fold the edges in carefully until they meet at the top and the filling is completely covered. Roll carefully into a ball again, this time with the filling hidden inside. Now flatten again between your hands until the ball becomes as flat and thin as possible without the filling seeping out (you can perform this step with a tortilla press if you have one). Ideally they should be about 1/4" to 1/2" thick. Repair any holes to make sure no filling is visible.

Brush a griddle or heavy skillet lightly with vegetable oil and place over medium-high heat. Place each pupusa carefully on the hot griddle. Cook 3-4 minutes on each side or until lightly browned and beginning to blister. Serve hot, topped with curtido or salsa. Leftovers can be refrigerated and heated up at 300 degrees in an oven or toaster oven.


1 head green cabbage
1 cup apple cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 medium onion
2 large carrots
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon brown sugar (optional)

Using a hand-grater or the grater attachment of your food processor, shred cabbage, carrots and onion. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Use the back of a wooden spoon to press all the ingredients down so they are submerged in liquid. Allow to rest at room temperature or in the refrigerator for at least 4-6 hours before serving. Serve with pupusas, or as a topping for fish, quesadillas, or black beans. Makes 10-12 servings.

*Edited 3/09 to add: Because I keep kosher more strictly than I did when I originally wrote this post, and I have yet to find cotija or any similar cheese that is hekshered with a reliable kosher certification, I have been making this with just jack cheese now, and it's great. In fact, I think any mild, hard white, meltable cheese will work well.


Kalyn Denny said...

Very interesting. Never heard of this before.

Mike Eberhart said...

I have never had a pupusa (as far as I know), but I have all the ingredients to make them I think - well, substituting a cheese perhaps. I bought this large bag of masa ages ago and have used only 1/4 of it, so I'm going to try making these things. They sure do sound good!

Unknown said...

Yo - I sampled these! They were so, so amazingly yumalicious!

Thanks again BTB!

Flamenco Mom said...

Thanks for posting a recipe for the curtido. Since I make arepas and (now)pupusas more more often, the curtido will make a welcome addition.

ByTheBay said...

Kalyn - I'm pretty sure they're not South Beach approved, but if you ever get to cheat - Give them a try.

Mike - Let me know how they turn out. Hope you enjoy!

Poet - I'm really glad you liked them. Glad they were good even reheated.

Flamenco Mom - Yay! Enjoy! I haven't made arepas yet, but I plan to do so next.

Sea said...

I will not rest until I too have tried the goodness of pupusa. May I ask, local girl, why you didn't share some with meeeeee? ;) Just kidding of course, but I really do hope to run into you at one of these bay events. I have to meet the genius behind these creations!


Lynn Barry said...

I don't do corn, darn, but I have had a craving for cabbage salad minus the mayo, since i don't do eggs. I will def try the cabbagey thingie. Your pics are gorgeous.

K Allrich said...

Wow do those look tasty! I love cornmeal pancakes. Have not tried using masa harina, yet. Thanks for the inspiration. :-)

ByTheBay said...

Lynn - I bet the curtido will be great with fish or some other dish. Let me know what you think.

Karina - I think you will love these!

Sea - I would love to meet up with you before I move.

Elaine said...

This looks so amazingly good! My favorite part of tamales has always been the masa, so I will be making these posthaste. I recently subscribed to your blog, found it thru Kalyn, and even though I am not gluten intolerant, I've been trying to use less refined flour, so your recipes are perfect!

Carla said...

Your pupusas look great! I'm trying to make them but can't get the dough right :-( Is there a secret trick?

Anonymous said...

Wow! this is fantastic! made up the dough with my four year old. She was so excited to make lunch (with mama's help, of course!;))I just kept telling her that it needed to feel like play dough. We did add alot more water than was in the recipe, but DD did it more by the feel. pocket sandwiches! The fillings could be endless--my DS wants to try peanut butter and jelly inside. thank you! said...

Carla: I don't know of any trick, it's just a question of the right proportion of masa and water, since those are the only ingredients. Play around with the proportions. Depending on everything from the brand of masa to your elevation, different amounts of water may be necessary.

Julie: I'm so glad to hear you and your daughter enjoyed these pupusas! Did you make curtido or just eat them alone? PB&J pupusas... Hm, interesting. I bet a sweet filling would be tasty.

CookingDiva - Chef Melissa said...

They look delicious! Saludos desde Panama :)

Anonymous said...

This looks so yummy -- what brand of masa do you use that's gluten free, I've been having a hard time finding one.

Thank you for posting!

- Rachel in Santa Cruz

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I went to El Salvador for 2 months this summer, and that's where I tried them, they were about 0.40$ each! My husband is salvadorian, that's why we went there, so I figured I really need to know how to make them, and now I know!

Luis said...

It seems to me that everyone's pupusas look better than mine. What am I doing wrong? More practice I guess. Thanks for posting your recipe!

ByTheBay said...

L'Innomable: Practice does, indeed, make perfect! Especially in this case! You need to tweak the dough so there's the right balance of masa and moisture, and that balance comes from experience. Fortunately, even the ones that don't look pretty taste just great!

Paul said...

Can you verify, "The manufacturer of Maseca brand masa harina has verified that it is gluten-free and was made in a facility that does not process wheat." Where did they say that? I've seen their web site and all they say is that "corn is a gluten free food" which is not quite the commitment that you credit them for.

Paul said...

Subscribe me.

ByTheBay said...

Paul: To subscribe you must enter your e-mail address into the field provided on the home page ( It is not something I can do manually. To verify with Maseca, I encourage you to contact the company. This post is from a number of years ago so I don't remember if this information was verified via e-mail or some other way. However, cross-contamination status can change at any time so I encourage you to contact them directly. Thanks for the comment.