Nestled in the Pacific Ring of Fire, El Salvador is home to 170 volcanoes and is roughly the same size as Israel.
If you plan to visit anytime soon, the Cerro Verde National Park will show off the beautiful landscape of this little country. It has become a surfing mecca in recent years and has been increasingly drawing tourists to its shores.
With its Spanish influence, Salvadoran food is a melting pot of flavor and color. Corn, beans, tomatoes, chilis, and squash are abundant in this county and can usually be found in any Salvadoran home.
Chicken, pork, beef, and seafood are all eaten as part of Salvadoran food and culture, as you will see in the recipes gathered below.
Here are 12 absolute must-tries if you’d like to give Salvadoran food a try. They are packed with magical flavors and ingredients that are both comforting and nourishing.
1. Famous Pupusas From El Salvador
Today we are starting with one of the most popular dishes in El Salvador, Pupusas. While Pupusas are a staple in many other Latin American countries, no one can argue where they originally came from!
There are MANY different types out there, but really no limit to what you can create with a basic recipe and the concept.
And one thing many readers will find beneficial: Pupusas are completely gluten-free when made from cornmeal. It’s a completely naturally gluten-free ingredient.
Pupusas are griddle cakes that are made with a corn or rice flour bread dough. I like to use Masa Harina because it’s super easy to find and tasty.
Before the flatbreads are made and cooked, they are opened and filled with meats, cheeses, beans, or vegetables. Once cooked over high heat, the filling is deliciously warm and melty.
When it comes to cheese, usually mozzarella works the best because it has excellent melting properties. Similarly, people LOVE using Manchego, Queso Oaxaca, and Queso Chihuahua. If you just add cheese, it’s called “Pupusa de Queso.”
For the meat filling, there isn’t anything that’s off the table. I love juicy fillings because the Pupusas really soak up all of the tasty juices, adding even more flavor to every bite.
Now, when serving Pupusas, other than the filling you are adding, of course, you can add accompaniments like Curtido, a type of cabbage relish. Another extremely popular option is salsa para Pupusas, a flavorful tomato-based dipping sauce.
2. Yuca Con Chicharrón
This is a popular dish shared by a couple of Latin American countries. In El Salvador, it’s served as a main dish and arguably one of the most popular options to choose from in restaurants and at street vendors, especially among tourists!
That being said, it’s also popular in most Central and South American countries, as well as in some parts of the Caribbean. Honduras is especially worth mentioning as people often associate this meal with it.
There are a couple of main elements that have to be included in the recipe.
First, it’s the yuca also known as tapioca or cassava root. The root is traditionally first boiled and then fried to give it a crispy finish.
If you cannot find yuca or don’t like its earthy flavor, you can also try sweet potatoes instead as well as any other vegetables. But I don’t recommend breaking the traditional (delicious) flavor profile. After all, that is why this dish became as popular as it did.
Next, you have crispy pork skins. These are easy to make and while there isn’t a set recipe, most of them are slightly spiced. If you are short of time, you can buy crispy pork skins at some butcheries.
You also need to make chimol, a type of tomato salsa that also includes some chili, cilantro, and onions. You can play around with the consistency of this element.
And finally, this dish is served with raw shredded slaw (cabbage). There isn’t a set type of color you have to use. Whatever is available in your region.
All in all, this may not be the healthiest dish, but it’s definitely one of the tastiest!
It’s also a fantastic accompaniment for soups, slices of bread, roasted meats (carneada), and Tamales.
3. Tamales Pisques (The El Salvador Way)
If you know what regular tamales are, these aren’t that different! But, seeing as these are specifically from El Salvador, there are a couple of key variations.
First, these are made with a corn flour-based dough, also called a masa dough. They are then filled with seasoned cooked beans and finally steamed.
Just like tamales and pasteles, you have to wrap the mixture in plantain leaves. This will help prevent them from falling apart during the steaming period and prevent them from drying out.
The plantain leaves will simply create a heating poach that traps moisture during cooking. If you cannot find plantain leaves, you can also use banana leaves or wax paper. Check out this tutorial on making Tamales on parchment paper.
Tamales pisques can also be made in advance and frozen for several months. This makes them the perfect grab-and-go snack or last-minute dinner plan.
Now, as for what these snacks are served with, they are usually the accompaniments, especially to crispy foods, grilled or roasted meats, and refreshing beverages.
But, as I freely will admit, you can eat them as-is with a dipping sauce of your choice. You don’t HAVE to serve them with other foods.
4. Elote Loco (Crazy Corn)
Not only is this an incredibly fun name to say, but it’s also an incredibly fun snack to devour. Not to mention, it’s incredibly tasty and doesn’t lack texture!
This name directly translates to “crazy corn,” which pretty much sums up exactly what you can expect.
Elote loco is a type of street food commonly found in El Salvador. It is made from corn on a cob (which is served on a stick) and topped with mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, grated or crumbled cheese, and salsa negra.
You can buy salsa negra or make your own at home. It’s simply made from roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, and roasted bell peppers. This is what gives it that signature dark brownish-black color.
You can also use a couple of different cheeses if you’d like. I just prefer the aged sharp cheddar cheese option. If the cheese is hard (or slightly wet like feta), it sticks to the corn better.
Now, another question you may be dying to know: How is the corn cooked?
Usually, it’s up to personal preference. You get some that are simply boiled, and some that are grilled. I like to first boil and then char my ears of corn. You can also cook it over an open fire to give it an earthy smoky flavor.
But to be clear, this is not a dish that can stand overnight or even for a couple of hours. It really is best made and served fresh.
5. Sopa De Pata
If you are looking for an extremely hearty and filling soup, you have to try sopa de pata. It’s primarily made from cow’s feet and beef tripe.
Along with these meaty staples, you can add a ton of aromatics, herbs, spices, and vegetables to help bulk it up. Popular additions include yuca (cassava), green beans, sweet corn, plantains, cabbage, and chayotes (a type of fruit part of the gourd family).
Some common aromatics and seasoning ingredients include beef broth (sometimes substituted with vegetable broth), garlic, oregano, coriander, chilies, cilantro, spring onions, salt, and pepper. It’s also often garnished with lime or lemon juice.
As you can see, this is a soup that does not lack ANY flavor at all.
Now, hear me out. I know many people don’t like the idea of eating a dish made with offal (feet and tripe). But TRUST ME! If nobody told you, you wouldn’t have even known what it’s really made from, and you would have most likely LOVED it.
This stew is incredibly savory and umami and pretty much like most other beef-based stews.
This dish is a true testament to Salvadoran food and the flavors it offers. You can serve it as is, or with flatbread or some form of grain or pulse. I also like serving mine with a fresh salad, just to lighten the meal a little.
6. Sweet Empanadas From El Salvador
If you follow my recipes, you know that I LOVE Empanadas. It’s a staple dish in most Latin American cuisines. Amongst my favorite options is this Spinach And Feta Empanada as well as the Caprese Empanada recipe.
In El Salvador, they also have a more unique take on this classic recipe: a sweet Empanada. You will see them at street vendors, cafes, or in local restaurants. And it’s one of those dishes that every home has a different recipe for.
These sweet Empanadas are special in a couple of ways. First, they are made with plantain dough. It’s not extremely sweet, easy to work with, and even easier to make.
Then, the dough is filled with a small dollop of cinnamon custard or cream. This is where you can play around with sweetness and flavor as you’d like. But cinnamon (and other wintery spices) are usually the go-to options.
Another reason I love these sweet treats is that you can also make them in an air fryer, even though typically, they are deep-fried. Just remember to brush them with a little bit of oil to give the dough some color.
Sweet Empanadas are best served on their own but are also delicious with some powdered sugar or a sweet dipping sauce. You can make a ton in advance and freeze them for later use.
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7. Nuegados De Yucca
Speaking of sweet dishes, here is another extremely popular and somewhat famous treat you have to try. It’s called Nuegados de Yucca, and what it is are small pops of fried yuca (cassava balls) drizzled with some honey or a sweet seasoned syrup.
Technically, these treats didn’t originate from El Salvador alone. Like most dishes these days, it’s a product of fusion cuisine influenced by the Spanish.
So, how do you make them? It’s shockingly easy and really quick too!
First, you can make a basic dough using yucca instead of flour. You usually only need ground yucca, eggs, baking powder, and a little bit of hard white cheese. The savory salty cheese will create an incredible flavor pairing with the sweet honey drizzle.
Once your dough is made, you can shape it into smaller pieces and deep-fry them until they become golden brown.
If you don’t want to use real honey, you can also make a faux version. Boil together some water, brown sugar, and cinnamon bark. Reduce the syrup until you are happy with the consistency.
Now, while these bites may be tiny, consumers be ware. They are addictive, to say the least, and you can quickly over-eat. These are not low in calories, so always eat in moderation, no matter how hard it is!
8. Salpicon De Res
Moving on to something a little lower in calories and a lot higher in nutrients, we have an incredible starter that is quite versatile in how you can use it.
Traditionally this dish is from Nicaragua, but they serve it with a different kind of meat. In El Salvador, many of the elements and flavor notes remained the same, mainly varying in the beef being used.
Salpicon de Res is a healthy plate commonly referred to as a roast beef salad. It is made with a shredded blade roast and a variety of shredded vegetables usually served with a citrus-oil dressing.
Typically, you would always include fresh mint leaves, fresh cilantro, sliced radishes, diced tomatoes, and finely chopped chili peppers. Most recipes also include shredded lettuce leaves, olives, and avocado.
While this dish is usually served as a starter, you can also create a small appetizer. A personal favorite is mini Tostadas with Salpicon de Res topping. You can even make mini tacos for a less formal event.
Salpicon de Res also makes a wonderful filling for quesadillas, tacos, and burritos. However, if you make it in bulk, it can stand up as a main on its own and doesn’t need any accompaniments.
You can play around with ingredient combinations, different kinds of citrus dressings, and, of course, spice rubs on your blade roast.
9. Pan Con Pollo
Pan Con Pollo is one of the most famous dishes from El Salvador out there, having made features in various movies and television series.
It’s an extremely popular chicken sandwich that is as versatile as it is colorful.
To start, you need some pulled chicken meat. Usually, the meat is stewed in a delicious tomato-based sauce, giving it flavor and some color. This is where you can add a ton of aromatics and seasonings, as the meat will absorb it all!
You can leave the chicken to stew for hours on end! Literally, until it falls apart when touched. This makes a super juicy, flavor-packed, and uber-tender filling that will easily pair with fresh accompaniments.
Secondly, it’s best to use some type of soft roll or bun for this sandwich. Hard rolls aren’t traditionally used and personally, makes it very difficult to eat. If you choose a soft bun, the sponge crumb will help absorb more juices, making every bite more flavorful.
To finish off the sandwich, you can add some sliced radishes, fresh lettuce leaves, and fresh and sliced cucumbers. Some other optional add-ons include tomatoes, carrots, watercress, and pickles.
You can also serve this sandwich with an additional dressing. A simple mayonnaise-vinegar dressing is all you need. Just make sure the flavors don’t clasp together. Remember, the pulled chicken is already juicy on its own.
This incredibly hearty sandwich is stuffed with essential nutrients, and I can all but guarantee there won’t be any leftovers!
10. Ensalada (A Uber-Refreshing Beverage)
This is a drink you will find EVERYWHERE in El Salvador: at street vendors, fancy restaurants, corner shops, and in virtually every home.
Also commonly called “Refresco de Ensalada” or fresh fruit salad drink, this juice is made from a combination of tropical fruits, lemon juice, water, and sugar. It’s intended to be super refreshing and cheap to make. You will also see many people use canned fruit instead of fresh.
Usually, you would always include pineapple, mango, apples, and oranges. There are also many other variations that include other fruits like cranberry juice, lime juice, lemon juice, and pears.
You can also add some herbs like basil or fresh mint leaves for added flavor.
Another thing that I love about this juice recipe is that you can adjust the sweetness. You can also use different kinds of sweeteners to avoid adding more calories than sweet tropical fruits already do.
11. Quesadilla From El Salvador (Cheese Cake)
At first glance, many people confuse “Salvadoran Quesadillas for the better-known Mexican cheese pizza. However, this version is actually a cheesecake, or as some like to call it, a baked sweet cheese pound cake.
Once you discover this delicious sweet treat, you won’t be able to stop yourself from indulging!
Quesadilla Salcadoreña is a type of baked cheesecake that can be found in almost every coffee shop and bakery in the country. Many households also have their own recipe for it, but they all follow the same general idea.
It is perfect for serving at tea time, on special occasions, or at breakfast alongside some other fresh baked goods.
This sweet quesadilla cake is made with a combination of cotija cheese, queso fresco, and smooth creamy cottage cheese. You will find all of these cheeses at a Mexican or Latin American grocery store.
To give it a less dense texture, you will need to add dairy ingredients like sour cream, whole milk, and whipping cream.
To make the cheesecake set, you use eggs (like most baked cheesecakes do), but also rice flour and baking powder.
As with all cheesecakes, you can adjust the amount of sugar you add to the recipe. I like to add just enough for it to come through the saltiness of the cheese.
Once baked, you’re left with a rich, uber creamy, soft, and extremely buttery cheesecake, perfect for serving with a hot cup of coffee.
12. Horchata (Sweet Rice And Seed Drink From El Salvador)
You may have noticed that many Latin American share similar dish names when in reality they couldn’t be further from each other. The above-mentioned Quesadillas come to mind.
Horchata is another example. In Mexican cuisine, they also have a beverage called Horchata. There, it’s a Mexican Rice drink seasoned with almonds, cinnamon, condensed milk, milk, and vanilla.
In El Salvador, Horchata is completely different. It’s a dairy-free creamy beverage made from a variety of seeds, rice, sugar, and seasonings.
Commonly, you will include morro seeds, sesame seeds, squash seeds, and coriander seeds. You also need to add rice (plain white rice), peanuts, and cocoa beans. For seasonings, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla are the most popular options.
To make Horchata, you can dry roast the ingredients except for the vanilla and sugar. Once roasted, they can be pulverized in a blender to form a fine powder.
This powder is mixed with water and seasoned with vanilla and sugar. This is also a drink where you can use different kinds of sweeteners and however much you like.
Horchata is served chilled and makes an uber-refreshing beverage on a hot day! You can serve it with virtually any meal, especially hearty, meaty dishes.