The Problem With Pupusa Pedigrees
I’ve come to realize, the hard way, that San Jose was not built for pedestrians. Whether skirting the edge of an unmarked road along cracked, uneven or missing sidewalks, or dodging oncoming traffic without the help of cross signals, getting around the city can be a genuine challenge without a car or motorbike. Luckily, “sodas” (snack bars) and other small bistros abound, so it’s much simpler to find decent street food than it is to find where the sidewalk continues if your “street” suddenly disappears before you. That’s how I ended up at Ruth’s Relax Place along Route 167. Halfway through what would turn out to be a 7.5km trek in search of a local cell plan, I paused for some R&R (rest and refreshments) before retracing my rigorous route.
Fearing the fading sunlight, I headed to the empanadas display case for a fast food fix and saw a stack of pancake-shaped corn tortillas with which I was unfamiliar. The vendor told me they were stuffed with “chicharrones” (pork rinds) and served hot, with a simple heap of cold coleslaw for dressing. I thought I had stumbled across some local Costa Rican fare but later learned this dish, called “pupusa”, is actually associated with El Salvador’s cuisine. Given its history, however, it makes sense to find these fried savoury hot cakes being sold throughout Latin America.
Culturally speaking, pupusas are of Mayan origin, but their Mexican ancestry faded after centuries of migration, as the popular dish made its way through Guatemala, Honduras, and later El Salvador, where they are now considered their most celebrated national dish. They even have a “Pupusa Day” on the second Sunday of the month of November!
Anthropologists were able to trace the pupusa’s pedigree with the help of linguists, who identified the word’s connection to both the Nahuatl (Aztec) and Quiché (Mayan) languages. In Nahuatl, “pupushagua” refers to a “swelling” (or stuffed) item – in this case, tortillas. Broken down to other root words, “pup” also refers to “scrambled”, “tsa” translates to “bulge”, and “puntúa” means “stuffing”. Meanwhile, in Quiché, “popuza” signifies “well joined”; “pop” indicates “to join” and “utz” meaning something “well made”. These descriptions suit the pupusa’s recipe, since the tortilla cakes must be well joined in order to keep the stuffing from falling out.
Pupusas were floating around Central America long before the Spanish arrived and adapted both its appearance and ingredients. They were originally vegetarian, stuffed with native edible plants like ayote sprouts, chipilín flowers, hierba mora, and mushrooms. They were also described in texts as half-moon shaped, much like its current modern street food rival, the empanada. Over time, they evolved to the full moon shape by which they are now recognized, and became more commonly stuffed with cheese, pork rinds, beans, or a combination of all three. Today you can even find pupusas made with rice flour instead of corn flour.
It can be tough to find “authentic” cuisine anywhere when the exchanges of migratory cultures have literally and figuratively fed one another for centuries. It’s best not to get caught up in the legitimacy of the dish, but rather acknowledge the lasting power of its simplicity. I think it will always be easier to find a widespread street food that appeals to international taste buds than it will be for Google Maps to find a hiking route with an accurate “estimated arrival time”.