In New Cookbook, Salvadoran Food Finally Gets Its Due

Eric Ginsburg

Karla Tatiana Vasquez's "SalviSoul Cookbook" is an essential contribution to Salvadoran food.

Until very recently, if you wanted a cookbook of recipes from El Salvador, you had just two options available in the United States. One, in Spanish. Another, a self-published title that filled such a void copies were selling for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market.

“This severe lack of representation fueled me to take matters into my own hands," writes Karla Tatiana Vasquez. "I decided to interview the Salvi women in my life and record their recipes because their stories were too precious not to document and share. And this documentation became the start of my life’s work.”

Courtesy SalviSoul Pupusas Photo

Vasquez's newly published SalviSoul Cookbook: Salvadoran Recipes & The Women That Preserve Them marks a significant step forward. Published by Ten Speed Press, part of Penguin Random House, it's "the first traditionally published Salvadoran cookbook in the United States."

Vasquez hopes it isn't the last, instead carving out a space and proving the importance and appeal of Salvadoran food. The deeper issues of a lack of available books documenting Salvadoreño and Central American foodways persists, as well as a broader food media erasure and lack of recognition, Vasquez told Food Fanatic.

It's easy to see her point. Despite more than two million Salvadorans living in the United States and a very long (and fraught) history between our two countries, for this to be the first and only commercially available cookbook on the cuisine of El Salvador when probably dozens of books on regional Italian food will come out this year alone (adding to a never-ending cacophony of Italian food media and recipes) sort of says it all.

"My hope is that this is not the only book we get to have," Vasquez told me. "I hope it affords more nuance for how rich cuisines can be." Despite her 14,000-word manuscript and her extensive research for SalviSoul Cookbook, it represents less than 10 percent of the breadth of Salvadoran (or "Salvi") food, she said. In other words, there's much more to tell, to document, to share.

Courtesy SalviSoul Author Photo - Karla Tatiana Vasquez

Above: the author

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, nestled on the Pacific Coast. Today, its currency is the U.S. dollar and coffee is the biggest export. Pupusas are arguably its most recognizable dish, prepared with a range of ingredients — including loroco flower in SalviSoul, and topped with the book's curtido recipe, a vinegar-based slaw of cabbage, onion, and carrot. (See above photo of the pupusas with loroco.)

From 1980-1992, El Salvador experienced a brutal civil war between the leftist Farbundo Martí National Liberation Front (or FMLN) and the military dictatorship government backed by the United States. The struggle arose from years of social inequality and violent government repression. The war and economic fallout led to millions of Salvadorans fleeing to the United States. Peace accords eventually led to reforms, and the FMLN is now a political party. 

Vasquez's family was among the families escaping during the war. She was born in the '80s and came to the U.S. at just three months old, growing up in the Los Angeles area. (The region is home to the country's biggest Salvadoran population, followed by the D.C. metro and then Texas and New York.)

As she recounts in SalviSoul Cookbook, Vasquez searched for her place as an immigrant with a foot in two worlds, not quite feeling at home or Salvi enough on her first trip back to El Salvador years later. She'd been involved in food justice work in southern California and was searching for "moments of empowerment in the kitchen." 

"I was struggling with not wanting to assimilate in order to be taken seriously," she said, adding that she feared assimilation might be the price associated with mainstream "success" in the United States.

Courtesy SalviSoul Enchiladas de Carne de Res Photo

Attempting to research Salvadoran food at an L.A. library, Vasquez came up empty. In her cookbook, she recounts a librarian's fruitless efforts to help her find out more about the Central American nation's food history.

"Finally, she turned her head toward us and said, 'Well, it appears if you want a book about the history of food in El Salvador, you're going to have to write it yourself,'" she describes in the book.

And Vasquez made a great candidate to do exactly that. She's a food writer and recipe developer who's been published by major publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Eater LA, and Teen Vogue, as well as developing recipes for Food & Wine and Serious Eats. She also used to work with Los Angeles Food Policy Council and Hunger Action Los Angeles.

Vasquez sought out recipes from her family, starting with her grandmother, the sage of her family's food traditions.

"The person for me who always had a lot of answers was Mamá Lucy," she told me. Her grandmother agreed to teach her some of her recipes, but also asked an important question — why haven't you already learned? She had access through her family, but had been encouraged to focus on pursuits outside the domestic sphere.

Courtesy SalviSoul Cover Photo

SalviSoul is full of Vasquez's food memories. But it goes much deeper than that. It also draws out recipes from a range of Salvadoran women in southern California, some of them family, others who she met through the project. Originally launched as a social media account and online community built around Salvadoran food, SalviSoul morphed into something much larger — oral history, the site of intergenerational healing, an opportunity to ask difficult questions, and a tool of empowerment.

Interspersed between recipes for plátanos fritos con frijoles licuados, pastelitos de hongos, and flor de izote (El Salvador's national flower, also known as yucca flower) con huevos, the cookbook tells the stories of the women at its foundation. One by one, readers learn more about Marta Rosa and her 35 years as a nanny, the tense moment Teresa decided that Carlos was the one for her, or how Ruth went from arriving in the U.S. as a shoeless 8-year-old to landing her pupusa business at Coachella.

The short biographies are lovingly penned stories of grit and richness, ones Vasquez is able to tell thanks to the bonds she formed with women who she spent years getting to know and cooking alongside.

To a one, the women she interviewed "needed more ease and care in their lives," Vasquez said, and she wishes she could've gone back in time and fought alongside them through their diverse challenges. Through food as a vehicle, Vasquez is doing that now, honoring and acknowledging the sacrifices they've made.

Courtesy SalviSoul Mojarra Frita Photo

When that kind of struggle is written down and spoken, people may be able to relate to it, she added. They may not be healed, but it creates the space to address some of those pains, Vasquez said.

“Perhaps for some folks, El Salvador is of no consequence; it is a small place in this world, a tiny corner," she writes. "But it’s been the biggest question in my life. I am from a captivating place. And I’ve been captivated ever since.”

You can buy SalviSoul Cookbook anywhere books are sold (including via that link). And you can try one of the recipes in it right here!

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Karla Vasquez's Salvadoran Pastelitos de Hongos Recipe

6 Servings

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1/2 cup White Onion, minced
  • 3 cloves Garlics, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 10 ounces Cremini Mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 5 teaspoons Chicken Bouillon
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dried Oregano
  • 4 1/2 cups Water
  • 2 cups Diced Potatoes, peeled
  • 1 cup Carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup Roma Tomato, chopped
  • 1/2 cup Green Beans, chopped
  • 2 cups Masa Harina
  • 2 teaspoons Achiote Powder
  • 1 teaspoon Baking Soda
  • 2 cups Vegetable Oil, or peanut oil
  • 1 large pinch Curtido, or salsa de tomate (optional, for serving)

Directions

  1. In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the onion, garlic, and salt and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms, 1 teaspoon of the chicken bouillon, the oregano, and ½ cup of the water and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid is mostly absorbed, about 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer the mushroom mixture to a mixing bowl.

  2. In the same pan over medium-high heat, combine the potatoes, carrot, tomato, green beans, 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon, and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium and let the vegetables simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to the same bowl containing the mushroom mixture.

  3. In a large bowl, combine the masa harina, achiote powder, baking soda, and remaining 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon. Slowly add the remaining 2 cups water to the masa harina and knead until the dough reaches the consistency of Play-Doh. (When the dough is pressed, its sides should not tear.) Pour some water into a small bowl and keep it handy for moistening the dough. Roll 1½ to 2 ounces of masa between the palms of your hands until it forms a completely round ball. Then start flattening it with the fingertips of your dominant hand. Rotate the round slightly so that it gets pressed down evenly and thinly. Repeat for the remaining tortillas.

  4. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the vegetable mixture onto half of each tortilla. Fold the other half of the tortilla over the mixture and pinch the seam to close it. Repeat for the rest of the pastelitos.

  5. Line a large plate with paper towels and set near the stove. In a large pot over medium heat, warm the vegetable oil until it registers 350°F on an instant-read thermometer. Add the pastelitos, two at a time, and fry until they turn golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Using tongs, transfer the pastelitos to the prepared plate to drain and cool.

  6. Enjoy the pastelitos on their own, or with curtido and salsa de tomate.

Notes

Reprinted from The SalviSoul Cookbook: Salvadoran Recipes and The Women That Preserve Them by Karla Tatiana Vasquez © 2024. Photographs copyright © 2024 by Ren Fuller. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Reprinted from The SalviSoul Cookbook: Salvadoran Recipes and The Women That Preserve Them by Karla Tatiana Vasquez © 2024. Photographs copyright © 2024 by Ren Fuller. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Eric Ginsburg is the Editor of Food Fanatic. He's served as an editor at three newspapers and written for a wide range of publications, including Bon Appétit, Serious Eats, Wine Enthusiast, Southern Living, and Eater Carolinas. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow him on Instagram.

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Eric Ginsburg

About Eric

Eric Ginsburg is the Editor of Food Fanatic. He's served as an editor at three newspapers and written for a wide range of publications, including Bon Appétit, Serious Eats, Wine Enthusiast, Southern Living, and Eater Carolinas. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow him on Instagram @eric_ginsburg.