When the topic is Salvadorian food, also referred to as Salvadoran food, many people immediately think of pupusas.
However, there’s more to the country’s cuisine than just this tasty snack. El Salvador’s food features new takes on the food of neighboring countries, but they also have exquisite traditional dishes of their own.
A typical breakfast in El Salvador will include huevos picados (eggs scrambled with vegetables), cheese, tortillas, and mashed beans, often accompanied by tropical fruits. Different types of soups and stews make up the main meals, often accompanied by empanadas, pupusas, tamales, and more.
Are you planning on an El Salvadorian trip for a taste of their delicacies? Do you want to replicate the country’s traditional dishes? The rest of the article will take a look at many of the traditional foods you should know about, and watch out for tips to keep in mind when you are on the hunt for these foods on your next trip to the Land of the Hammocks.
What Is El Salvadorian Food?
Salvadorian food refers to the cuisine of El Salvador’s populace. Many of the dishes are based on corn, and there’s also heavy use of seafood and pork.
The food in this Central American country is a mix of a Native American food from indigenous groups such as Cacaopera, Mangue, Mixe, Alaguilac, Maya Chʼortiʼ, Poqomam, Pipil, Lenca, and Xinca. There’s also a Spanish influence on the cuisine, following the Conquest of El Salvador.
El Salvador’s coastline means that fresh seafood often features heavily in most meals. The coastal towns and cities have meals that highlight this fact the most, but there’s a rich seafood culture even within inland towns.
History of El Salvadorian Food
Salvadorian food is commonly represented as bland or underwhelming. This may be true if you are comparing their cuisine to that of their neighbors such as Mexico, but on its own, Salvadorian food is very rich.
The country’s turbulent history means that they generally haven’t been able to pay more attention to expanding their culinary scene. The limited resources and crops also mean that their options are also limited. However, they creatively use common staples like beans, plantains, corn, and cheese to create various delicacies.
Before the Europeans came along, Salvadorian food historically relied on squash, beans, corn, tomatoes, and chilies. Following colonization by the Spanish, onion, beef, and cheese were introduced into the cuisine.
While Salvadorian food is served as a complement to other Central and South American cuisines in some places, it can stand on its own, providing variety and a wider appeal using both local and shared ingredients and techniques.
Traditional Dishes in El Salvador
Below is a list of traditional dishes in El Salvador, including staples, soups, meats, and desserts.
Pupusa is popular because it is El Salvador’s adopted national food. The second Sunday in November of every year is recognized as the Pupusa’s National Day in El Salvador. Also known as Pupisio, the food was first created by the Pipil tribes, which lived in the territory currently known as El Salvador.
Cooking tools used in the preparation were found in Joya de Cerén, the site of a native village that was lost to the ashes from a volcano explosion. The foodstuffs were perfectly preserved after thousands of years. These cooking utensils have also been unearthed in other archaeological sites across the country.
Some people have referred to pupusas as El Salvador’s answer to tacos or dumplings, but to lovers of the delicacy, it’s more than that. It is corn or rice-flour dough filled with a range of fillings and then flattened to form a disc. The fillings can range from a combination of different meats and seafood to just plain vegetables. Some also come with chicharron and beans. Whatever the combination, cheese is always present.
You can find pupusas everywhere in El Salvador from the middle of the day and for the rest of the evenings throughout the cities, towns, and villages.
The tamales dish is popular all over Latin America, but El Salvador has its own twist on it. The dish features corn flour or masa and dough filled with meat such as chicken or pork. The mixture is wrapped in banana leaf and then steamed for several hours to form a soft and stuffed loaf.
The ingredients used in the El Salvadorian tamales give it a unique flavor not found elsewhere. The masa dough and meat are the only things that remain from what you can find in Tamales elsewhere. They add chickpeas, tangy capers, roasted sweet red peppers, salt olives, and boiled eggs.
It’s typically served with hot sauce. Just spread the sauce over the tamales after unwrapping it to enjoy some filling bites.
These are not as common as pupusas, but you can expect to find street stalls or chicken buses selling them.
Yuca con Chicharron
Also known as vigoron, this is a common dish in El Salvador. The make-up is exactly what it says on the tin. The yuca is a starchy root vegetable (known as cassava in some places) while chicharron is fried pork belly mixed with some crispy skin.
The yuca is mostly fried but can also be boiled, and then the pork is used to top off the dish. It is then served with the same curtido that accompanies pupusas. It is typically served at room temperature.
You can find yuca in many places, but Chalchuapa is known to serve some of the best plates. So when next you’re there (or anywhere close to Santa Ana), you know what to ask for.
Tortas are yet another favorite for El Salvadorians. Many locals love them and will quickly recommend them if you’re a visitor. The El Salvadorian torta is similar to what you’ll find in Mexico. It’s a standard hoagie bun sliced open and stuffed with some sort of meat patty, grilled wiener, onions, lettuce, and lots of ketchup.
The mixture is then fried on a griddle to ensure the lettuces and sauces are properly heated through. You can tortas alone or use some sauce and drinks. Tortas stalls dot the landscape in most El Salvadorian cities, especially throughout the central parks.
Desayuno tipico literally means a typical breakfast. In El Salvador, just like the rest of Central America, their breakfast contains pretty much the same food items. The result is a carb and starch-heavy meal that will give you the energy you need to get through the day.
You’ll find some differences from place to place, but generally, a standard desayuno tipico will include scrambled eggs, salty cheese, beans, rice, and roasted plantains. You’ll also get lots of white buns and either freshly squeezed juice or a cup of coffee. You may also get a bottle of hot sauce.
You can find desayuno tipico in any restaurant or food stall that sells breakfasts. There will be some variations to what you’ll find on your plate, but they’ll rarely deviate from what we’ve mentioned above.
Elote Loco means “Crazy Corn”. It’s a street snack loved by locals and indeed anyone else that tries it. It is basically boiled or grilled corn on the cob, slathered in a combination of every spread you can think of, including mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, mayonnaise, and more. Some people also sprinkle salty cheese into the mix.
This combination of contrasting flavors and textures is what gives this delicacy the name. Your taste buds will be confused initially, but after your first cob or two, you’ll understand why it’s loved by some people. It is also perfectly normal if you don’t like it!
You can find Elote Loco in street carts across the bigger cities.
Loroco is a vine that has edible flowers known for their distinct flavor. The plant can be found in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, but it is used majorly in El Salvadorian cuisine. The taste of this flower is so unique that it can’t quite be compared to any other ingredient. If it’s in any food, you’ll know right away. Its strong floral flavor means it is added as a side to many dishes, sold alone, or used as a filling for pupusas.
It can also be the base for pesto, placed on grilled meat, or as a mix with pasta. The buds are sometimes sprinkled on top of the pizza. If you love it enough to eat it alone, it is typically mixed with cheese. You can find loroco in most pupusa shops across the country.
Fried Plantains, Yuca and Potatoes Mix
These fried carbs are some of the most common and most inexpensive snacks in El Salvadorian cuisine. You’ll find them almost everywhere, from local buses to all around the streets of cities and towns. They are mostly cut into strips or chunks, but in some cases, they are spiraled or shredded. The portions are always large for the price, so you’ll have to watch your consumption.
They are often served with some lime or hot sauce, but some sellers can also serve them with some ketchup or mayonnaise. If you are looking for a cheap snack anytime and not up for pupusas, this is an option that should be high on your list.
You can find these anywhere people are congregated, but they are also sold by food vendors pushing carts.
Whether you’re eating rice or fried plantain, a typical main meal in El Salvador will involve some type of grilled meat. The selection will vary from place to place, but it will typically involve chicken, pork, or beef typically pounded thin and grilled over coals.
The dish won’t come close to what you’ll get in a high-class barbecue spot, but the result is a super tasty and affordable meal. Apart from the affordability, one of the best things about these meals is that the meat is almost always organically raised (or free-run). So, you’ll be getting healthy meat loaded with lots of flavors.
If you’re not eating a full meal, the grilled meat may be served with tomatoes, avocado, and some tortillas. You can find grilled meat everywhere across the city and town. Most restaurants have some version of this on their menu. It’s all about seeing if they have the meat you want. Grilled pork and chicken are more common.
This delicious sausage is a specialty mostly found in Ruta de Flores and most parts of western El Salvador. It’s difficult to find it anywhere else, though, so you should probably strike it off your list if you’re not going there. If you have the Juayua weekly food festival on your list, however, you’ll be sure to find lots of it.
This is a spicy snack that is basically a combination of Longania and Chorizo—two Spanish sausages. The fusion brings the best things about both types of sausages to the fore. You’ll love the finely minced pork served in heat that is properly balanced.
If you’re not going to Ruta de Flores or the food festival, you can ask locals for where to get Chorilonza. You could be lucky to find individual stall owners far away from Western El Salvador offering this delicacy.
You’re probably wondering why on earth anyone would find iguanas interesting enough to eat, but the truth is if you look beyond the reptilian look, it’s just another source of meat. El Salvadorians have been enjoying this delicacy for a long time, and it only takes one plate for you to understand why: it basically tastes like chicken.
You won’t find this along the road, so it’s another one where you’ll have to talk to a local to get a location. However, if you are in San Salvador, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a spot. The night market on the Ruta des Flores is also a great place to look if you are in the area.
This means rabbit meat. It is not as popular as chicken around the country, but many spots sell it roasted or grilled. You’ll find people gathered around spots known for selling this delicate but flavor-laden meat from late in the evenings.
Unfortunately, the spots are so few that your best bet of finding rabbit meat without walking for hours is to just go to the Juayua Food Festival. You’ve seen the running theme here. The Juayua Food Festival is the place to go if you are visiting El Salvador for the food. Even if you’ve already booked a stay in San Salvador, it’s worth the 90-minute drive.
Sopa de Gallinas India
This soup is one of the most popular in El Salvador. The name might suggest it comes from India, but that isn’t the case. The reference is related to indigenous or wild. It’s a tasty chicken soup made with a wild rooster.
The soup is treated as a specialty because wild roosters are hard to come by. Most restaurants only serve it on weekends. In populous cities, the soup typically sells out very quickly.
While the locals see this as just soup, it could pass as a full meal for many people as it comes with potatoes and vegetables. The plate of rice served with the soup typically has grilled chicken legs, breasts, and thighs on it.
Sopa de Pata
This is cow foot soup. It’s a filling beef broth rich in gelatin. Apart from the cow hoof that is the centerpiece, the soup also contains meat and tendons. The cow foot inside the soup generally makes this dish unattractive to non-locals, but it is very tasty. It’s also a great way to prepare for some of the stranger foods of El Salvador.
Just like the rabbit meat and Iguana soup, you won’t find this delicacy in conventional restaurants. It’s another one where you’ll have to ask around.
Like other countries in Latin America, El Salvador has its version of mondongo. The soup is famed as a powerful remedy for hangovers. The main ingredient used in making it is tripe (from the stomach of a cow). It sounds like another strange food that will be hard to swallow, but it’s far from it.
The tripe is properly washed and then cooked with all the usual spices. The Salvadorian twist to this delicacy often contains tendons, cartilage, and hide. Corn and potatoes are added to the mix to complete the soup. It is common in eastern El Salvador, especially San Miguel. However, other regions also make the soup, sometimes with slight twists.
As a country that has a rich seafood culture, fried fish is a common staple here. Restaurants buy up the fish caught by fishermen, remove the guts and scales and then fry them whole in hot oil. This result is fish with a crispy exterior, but very juicy inside.
If you choose to enjoy this delicacy, you need to be careful to avoid the dangerous tiny bones. You can find fried fish everywhere in El Salvador, but to ensure you enjoy fresh fish, you should prioritize restaurants near the coast.
The black clams dish is a seafood specialty traditionally enjoyed by the locals and visitors with adventurous tastes buds. The clams have black brine in their shells, hence the name. This food is one of the most intriguing on the list, as it is served raw.
It’s usually prepared with chopped shallot and tomato, after which some lime juice and hot sauce are slathered over the clam. The mix is then slurped and swallowed while the clam is still moving! The lime is perhaps the most important ingredient here.
Firstly, the taste adds to the whole experience, and secondly, it is useful for checking to see that the clam is still alive. Eating dead clam while it’s raw is unhealthy.
This delicacy is perhaps unsurprisingly very common in restaurants across the country. However, you should ensure you are getting them from a popular location such as the San Salvador main market or the La Libertad fish market.
Cocteles & Ceviche
These are two seafood snacks that go hand in hand. Ceviche is raw fish or prawns that are cooked in lime juice and then mixed with other ingredients for spicing. Cocteles, on the other hand, are some shrimp dipped in a mix of ketchup, mayo, onions, and chili sauce.
In other places, you get either one or the other.
In El Salvadorian cuisine, however, you get a combination of both in one pack. The snack is very popular with both locals and as a visitor, it will most likely become a favorite for you as well.
Known by the locals as the Salvadorian truffle, the tenquique is a seasonal mushroom with a distinct taste. It’s very popular when it’s in season, so you’ll find it served with almost every other dish, especially in tortillas, pupusas, and grilled meat. You’ll find the mushrooms sold in both conventional restaurants and Pupuserias.
Panes Con Pavo
This is another seasonal delicacy, only enjoyed during Christmas. It’s roast turkey, but with a twist. Here, the turkey is marinated and then roasted in a sauce containing garlic, tomato, chilis, and sophisticated blends of spices and seeds.
The meat is shredded and stirred back into the sauce after it’s been cooked. Then, it is placed in a sizable sandwich bun. The turkey sandwich is topped with lettuce, curtido, shaved radishes, and extra sauce to finish it all up.
If you are in El Salvador during Christmas, this is a popular meal in most restaurants. Alternatively, you can just order the spice blend and make yours at home.
Pastel de Platano
It may be surprising to know that traditional El Salvadorian cuisine recognizes desserts, but Pastel de Platano is one of the best desserts you’ll ever have. It still features the main ingredients like beans, cheese, corn, and plantains, but the preparation is what sets it apart.
Each restaurant might have a slightly different recipe for this, but the result is the same: sweetened corn dough, fried beans, and roasted plantain in a delicious blend. This dessert is common in San Salvador but may be found in other parts of the country.
It’s easy to confuse this with the cheese-loaded tortillas from Mexico, but they are different. This is another traditional El Salvadorian dessert. It’s very similar to a pound cake, but there is a variation. Parmesan-like salty cheese is mixed into the dough.
The resulting salty-sweet cake is topped off with sesame seeds and is often paired with hot chocolate or Salvadorian coffee. The delicacy is available everywhere, from restaurants and coffee shops to the counter at corner stores.
With panes rellenos, you get El Salvador’s twist to the submarine. The meat in the sub is either chicken or turkey, but the Pipil spices used are what make this dish traditionally El Salvadoran, with a truly indigenous flavor.
The submarine also contains lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed by the spices and to add some vitamins and minerals to the mix. This is a finger food that is very popular across the country, so you shouldn’t have a hard time finding them in any food stall or restaurant.
This is the authentic El Salvadoran drink. It’s basically a mixture of fruits, including mangoes, pineapples, grapes, etc. The fruits are chopped up into small pieces and then mixed with a mocktail of water, lemon juice, and pineapple juice. The mix is then served chilled in a big jug, and from here, you can pour it into your glass cup.
Think of this as the perfect drink to have by your side when you are eating some spicy grilled meat or soup. It’s very refreshing, and of course, healthy. You are likely to find it in restaurants and food stalls.
Sopa de Pescado
This is a properly spiced seafood soup made with fish and shrimps majorly. Green pepper, achiote, cornflour, tomatoes, cumin, and other ingredients are added to give the soup its color and flavor. This is another seasonal special made for Good Friday meals; however, you can occasionally find restaurants in San Salvador, serving it once in a while. If you see it on the menu, don’t hesitate to ask for some!
Horchata is a drink that is popular across Latin America, including El Salvador. It’s a creamy beverage you’ll find everywhere in the city, from restaurants to food stands in streets and parks. The recipe includes milk, sugar, rice, and some spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. It’s another recipe you can easily replicate anywhere.
El Salvador’s cuisine isn’t front and center of many discussions around Central American cuisine, but with the rich history and a resurgence of local chefs with foreign education, it’s only a matter of time before the country’s cuisine gets the level of recognition it deserves.
If you’re considering visiting the country for the food, you’ll find a lot more than just pupusas and generic Central American dishes. With a slightly adventurous palate, you are bound to get lost in a culinary experience you’ll talk about for a long time.
- Google Sites: Salvadorian Food and Culture
- Trip 101: Traditional El Salvador Food
- Trip Savvy: Traditional Food and Drink in El Salvador
- Wikipedia: Salvadoran cuisine
- Flavorverse: 16 Traditional Salvadorian Foods
- Royle: The Cuisine of El Salvador
- AZ Pupusa Festival: Deleitate con El Salvador, No Necesitas Pasaporte
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