Salvadoran Cuisine vs The World

Of course there are pupusas at El Ostrero Chepe Alete. This is El Salvador, after all. But it’s not why we’re here. In the middle of a riverbed, close enough to the sea that you can smell the salt in the air, we’re eating oysters. Large and clunky, they are stacked like rocks on beer crates at the restaurant, which is little more than a garage with a wood fired hearth and few plastic tables beneath a couple of tarps out the back door. Sometimes the water is high enough that you are sitting in it. Other times the water recedes, and the tables sit on the rocks and chickens are running around. It’s the most scaled back yet downright soulful oyster bar I’ve ever been to.

Owner José Luis Castillo, who just goes by Chepe Aleta, is a diver and a fisherman. Whatever he collects from the sea or gets pulled out of the Pacific by local fishermen that morning go on the menu. Conchas Negras, oysters, and sea snails get served raw with slices of lime. Shrimp are served in broth, breaded, grilled, or in garlic sauce. Fish are fried or grilled whole and sold by weight.

Chepe Aleta is at kilometer 49.5, near Playa El Zonte in La Libertad, where more than once I’ve heard someone say, “it’s like Costa Rica 20 years ago.” It’s mostly surfers flocking to the stretch of jungle clad coast, made up of a string of beach towns like El Sunzal, El Tunco, and El Palmarcito, full of small hotels, surf camps, and restaurants.

Native beans for sale at a farmer's market in San Salvador.
Sopa de Pata, at San Salvador's Mercadito de Merliot.
Atol de elote, a corn masa beverage of Mesoamerican origins.

I’m there with the team from Raíz, chef Alex Herrera and pastry chef Gracia Navarro, along with sommelier Ernie Solarzano, who are trying to change the idea of what Salvadoran cuisine is and what it can become. They are enthusiastically putting together a loose network of cooks, fishermen, roasters, foragers, beekeepers, brewers, and suppliers that just might, collectively, become the spark, or even just a spark among other sparks, that launches El Salvador on a pathway away of every fucked-up thing that has ever happened there.

When you hear of El Salvador on the news in the United States, it’s never in a positive light. President Trump went as far as to call it a “shithole.” Migration is the primary topic, often because of families escaping gang violence in some parts of the country. Many of those gang members were actually raised in Los Angeles, where their families fled when escaping the civil war. They never knew much of El Salvador, but then they were deported there, creating a new wave of instability. It’s an ugly cycle that has as much to do with U.S. policy as the choices Salvadorans have made. Much of the breadth of Salvadoran cuisine, pupusas aside, has nearly been erased. Even though it might seem like there’s no way out, that outside forces will always dictate the country’s actions, doors are opening.

“El Salvador is more than pupusas, beaches, and bad things,” says Herrera. “There is a gastronomy revolving around local product, around Salvadoran stories. There’s a before and after for El Salvador and its gastronomy.”

At a pop-up dinner called Centro America Unida with chefs from around the region, organized by Raíz in mid-November at a restaurant perched on a rocky bluff overlooking the Pacific, Herrera served a dish composed of what was essentially in the trash at every Salvadorans house: inner petals of an onion, coffee grounds, and pasilla chile. The onions were laid out to become flower like, stuck in place with reduced coffee and chile. Navarro took a recipe from her grandmother, Abue Doris, but transformed it with fresh, native fruits and contemporary techniques. In Raíz pop ups, which are paired with natural and independent wines picked by Solarzano, they explore Salvadoran ingredients like chaya, an oft-ignored native leafy green, and pay tribute to a tamal made with chicalmiche, a small fish. The project will transform into a brick and mortar restaurant sometime in late 2019 or 2020.

“I think it is the responsibility of the llamémosle (restaurateur) to generate not only money with the food they offer but to generate culture, nutrition, and learning,” says Navarro. “To create new traditions, because without new experiences or new ways of eating or drinking there would be no tradition.”

The fish market at Puerto La Libertad.
Horchata de morro, made from the ground seeds of the coconut-like morro fruit.
The highland town of Suchitoto.
Loroco flowers, a favorite Salvadoran ingredient.

Despite what is overheard on the news, parts of the country can seem overly Americanized. There are glossy shopping malls and fast food chains that cater to middle classes, many of whom have lived in the U.S. These were the things that were invested in when no one wanted to think of El Salvador, because for decades, there was only sadness. Now, they’re tired of sadness.

Roughly the size of Massachusetts, you can get anywhere in El Salvador within a few hours. There are volcanoes and cloud forests, mountain towns and a string of rural villages connected by wildflower speckled roads. There’s a Mayan village, Joya de Cerén, that was buried by an eruption like Pompeii, plus crater lakes and strange rock formations.

Not far away from Chepe Aleta is a nineteenth century pier, the only artisan fishing pier along El Salvador’s 126-mile long coast, at Puerto de la Libertad. Within the seafood market, everything is laid out in large metal buckets filled with ice. There is shrimp of every size, stout lobsters, and red snapper. Flat, whole snook and mackerel, dried on rocks in the sun, sit on tables, stacked like pieces of paper. Small red and blue land crabs are tied together by the handful. On the malecón just off the pier are dozens of small seafood restaurants with simple meals and cold beer. Places you could sit in all day without a care in the world and watch the the fishing boats come and go. In fact, many do this.

On the other side of the country is Suchitoto, with its white washed church and colonial cobblestone grid of streets in the mountains above Lago Suchitlán. It’s a town that nearly disappeared during the civil war, but today is filled with shops selling indigo, boutique hotels like Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, and outdoor restaurants where you can sit beneath the shade with a cup of horchata de morro, like Casa 1800.

In San Salvador, there are markets bustling with people. At the weekly farmer’s market at the Minsterio de Agricultura y Ganadería there are dozens of stands selling Salvadoran ingredients like freshwater fish, honey, and loroco, plus clay jars filled with atoll de elote, pupusas on the comal, and chicharrón being pulled out of bubbling vats of oil. The Mercado Central in the center sprawls out in every direction, selling not just foodstuffs, but clothes and electronics. In the Mercadito de Merliot, workers on their lunch break descend on the food stalls for ceviches, cócteles, and sopa de pata.

Then, there’s the coffee. The commodity’s booms and busts are woven into the fabric of the country for the last several hundred years. Despite a disease devastating the crop a few years ago, many growers are shifting to a more diverse collection of plants. Overdose Coffee Dealer, a small roaster in Santa Tecla, holds cuppings that include new wave coffees made from a hybrid called pacamarra, a local strain of caturra called paca, and old bourbon that survived in the shadows of the war.

Elsewhere in the city, young chefs are opening new concepts tailored to local products. El Mestizo, a new food hall in the World Trade Center complex, features nine original concepts, including La Cocina Central, with updated Salvadoran small plates. There’s Boca Boca, with comfort food and cocktails, and and Kwa, a pop-up from a chef that worked at Noma, Pujol, and Quintonil.

Still, wherever you go in El Salvador, there are pupusas. They were being made by the Pibil culture a few thousand years ago, then shaped like half moons and filled with things like squash blossoms, chipilín, and tenquique mushrooms, anf they’ll b around for thousands of years more. Until the 1960s, they were limited to a few central towns, but a series of military dictatorships, which brought on tragedies like La Matanza, when tens of thousands of indigenous people were slaughtered, displaced thousands and pushed pupusas to every corner of El Salvador and into Guatemala and Honduras. Later, the civil war brought them to the U.S. The hand formed tortilla patties – I like them best with chicharrón, melted quesillo, or loroco and topped with a spoonful of curtido – can be had on a sidewalk table in every part of the country. In Olocuilta, they make them with rice flour, while in Alegría they add plantains into the masa. You can have them for breakfast or a late night snack. They’ll come on the side of dish or they can be the main course. Passed by hand, hot and greasy, right from the cook to the diner. Pupusas are wonderful, though you already knew that.