I have no attention span for menu novelties. Yes, the French-Asian fusion of the '90s was once intriguing and exhilarating, but now a teriyaki coq au vin kebab sounds about as seductive as a boiled pencil. There are other faded glories, of course: the yesterdays of blackened redfish, tall food, gigantic ravioli, fussy little pizzas, anything with truffle oil--nouvelle flavors-of-the-month that have, with time, become Valium for the palate. Fortunately, something with authentic staying power recently reached my kitchen when my brother-in-law Jose brought over a hot platter of pupusas from his native El Salvador.
One of El Salvador's great passions, pupusas are pancake-shaped pockets with a thinly crusted exterior that are stuffed with warm, succulent meat, cheese and even flowers. As we eagerly dug into our feast, Jose talked about growing up in his homeland, where extended families gathered on Friday nights for shared food and music, where he and his friends acted out their favorite TV shows, "Lost in Space" and "The Avengers." Think jazz and swimming holes and sunlight. Think cuisine that has descended from the Mayans and whose bright flavors delight and surprise.
Salvadoran newcomers like Jose, who make up Southern California's second-largest Latino population, brought this national gustatory treasure with them. Pupusas first appeared here in neighborhood bakeries called pupuserias and later in comfy family-style restaurants, and now they have acclimated nicely to the trendy world of nueva-Latina haute cuisine. "Pupusas are typical street food," says executive chef Gil Morales of La Boca Del Conga Room in Los Angeles. "They're made fast, eaten on foot. Very versatile. Usually they're filled with chicharron, which is pork, and cheese. Here at the Conga Room, we usually stuff them with ingredients such as mushrooms or lobster."
A pupusa purist, Jose shudders at such "lobsterization." His favorite is the traditional pupusa de loroco, a Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like marriage of a delicately flavored cheese called queso duro and handfuls of loroco--a tiny herb-like flower native to Central America.
When making pupusas here in Southern California, loroco is the most difficult ingredient to find. Your best bet is at Latino specialty food shops, but the remaining elements are basic: stone-ground masa corn flour, oil, water and the filling of your choice. Begin your pupusa apprenticeship with pork or beef and then play around with sausage, turkey, or, yes, lobster. For sweeter tastes, Morales suggests using ground yellow cornmeal instead of masa and filling with berries or fruit. Savory pupusas are eaten traditionally with curtido, a cabbage and vinegar combination. A traditional plate also includes a side of beans and sour cream with fried plantains. Before making your own, see how the professionals do it at Izalco in North Hollywood, at downtown's Grand Central Market or your neighborhood pupuseria, where the humid air is filled with exotic scents and you'll hear the rhythmic slap-slap of hot, fresh pupusas hitting the grill.
Sirloin and Plantain Pupusas
3 cups masa
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons water
1/4 pound sirloin beef, diced
3 tablespoons ripe plantain, diced
3 tablespoons red or green pepper, diced
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/2 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and diced
3 tablespoons red wine
3/4 cup beef broth
3/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Place masa in bowl. Stir in water. Knead dough into ball. In small saute pan, cook plantain in 2 teaspoons olive oil until golden color. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in medium saucepan. Cook beef until brown. Pour off liquid. Add peppers, onions, garlic and jalapenos and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste, wine, beef broth and cilantro. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring often. Drain liquid and stir in fried plantain. Roll 2 tablespoons of dough into ball, then place between two pieces of plastic wrap. Flatten on board to 3-inch diameter. Continue until you have 16 rounds. Place 1 tablespoon of filling in center, add tablespoon of cheese and put second dough circle on top. Press down to seal. Heat pan with 1/3 cup olive oil and fry pupusas, 5 minutes per side. Place in 400-degree oven for 5-7 minutes until golden brown and heated through.