Today I tasted my first pupusa and promptly fell in love. The national dish of El Salvador takes the shape of a thick corn tortilla stuffed with cheese, beans or pork. Corn turns up in many of my favorite foods as it exudes comforting homeyness. My friend Julie, who has lived in Richmond for 20 years, has been telling me about her little neighborhood gem, La Bamba Taqueria, which has been there longer than she has, and I finally got her to take me there for lunch.
You might walk right past La Bamba – except that its screaming orange and yellow walls catch your eye. The menu has other dishes that Julie says are quite good but we went straight for the Salvadoran Specialities and ordered one of each kind of pupusa: cheese, beans and pork and one with a combination of all three with loroco (the bud of an edible flower). ($2.30/each)
Pupusas’ history reaches back hundreds of years. Implements for making them were discovered in the archeological site Joya de Ceren (like a Salvadoran Pompeii) where around the year 600, a volcanic eruption buried a farming village. No human remains were found, so it seems that people were able to flee the lava in time, but they left behind utensils, ceramics and even half-eaten food.
One reason pupusas are so good at La Bamba is that they are made fresh right in front of you. You can watch the women patting the masa dough into a pancake, adding the filling, rolling it up in a ball and then patting it flat again. They throw the pupusas on the grill and heat each side till lightly browned.
The traditional accompaniment curtido, is a tangy mix of cabbage, carrots, onions, chilis and vinegar that is slightly fermented. The melty cheese oozing from a warm corn patty topped with cool crunchy slaw is a heavenly marriage of textures. And the best part: you eat pupusas with your hands.