Vittles 4.7 - Pupusas
The Pupusas of Winchmore Hill, by Adelina Bonilla
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“Entirely unrelated, do you know if there is anywhere in London that sells pupusas?”. My editor at Eater London, Adam Coghlan, sent me this precisely two years ago ─ at the time we had been talking about the inability of the London food media to get to grips with a story on racism they were meant to be reporting, so this was really a complete volte face in tone. In truth, I did not know where to get pupusas, but I was three months into my beat writing about diaspora restaurants and I saw this somewhat as an unspoken test of my abilities. There’s no way, I thought, that someone, somewhere in these 32 boroughs, has not made a pupusa that they could be convinced to sell to me. I immediately trawled Twitter for clues, only to find a backlog of people complaining that there was nowhere in London to get pupusas, with reply guys telling them where they could get arepas instead (no one who has had a specific craving for a pupusa could ever be satisfied by an arepa, no matter how good).
I think people who know me would say that once I get an idea in my head I can be like a dog with a bone. In my mind I saw myself spending the next week trawling London for pupusas, following false leads, knocking on embassy doors, learning Spanish. But looking back on the chat logs I can see it actually took me twenty minutes to come back to Adam with an answer: Cuzcatlán. From the moment we learnt of the existence of Cuzcatlán it took us four months to actually get a pupusa. With the timing of a comedy sketch one of us would remember its existence only to log on and find out that we had missed the deadline for ordering pupusas by an hour. This went on interminably until December when I finally made contact with Adelina Bonilla who runs Cuzcatlán and put in an order for every pupusa she had: pork, cheese, beans, cheese and beans, pork and cheese, pork cheese and beans, and the wild card of cheese and garlic. One Saturday, we went up to Latin Village in Seven Sisters, met Adelina (who was curious as to how exactly we found her), portioned out the pupusas, ate some for the road, and were generally very happy. I then spent the next week travelling around London delivering pupusas to friends who had asked for them ─ Angeleno food writer and chef Chloe-Rose Crabtree pronounced them “legit” which was enough to back up my feeling that these pupusas, the first ones I’d ever had, were pretty fucking good.
And then, I didn’t write about them. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to keep it to myself; I just couldn’t find a way to do it. Eater London’s remit is restaurants, and Cuzcatlán is still a home operation albeit with a public facing side. I did research into other similar ad hoc businesses, hoping I could write something about the foodways of immigrants who don’t have strong representation in London: Salvadorians of course, but also the home deliveries of Isaan food made by a woman in London that my friends Thanita and Tom have assured me is better then The Heron in its heyday; Meldon Ferrao who makes Goa sausage in Hayes and ships it across the UK; the newsletter for Japanese home cooking; the lady in Spitalfields who is selling Bak Chor Mee enriched with lard. That article never got written, but the pandemic has changed my view that there is a way of writing about these things that is both relevant to readers and, more importantly, sensitive to the people who either own or rely on these modes of “eating out”.
A few months ago I got in touch with Adelina again and her response was to write today’s newsletter about pupusas and Cuzcatlán. Like all restaurants, her business has suffered too ─ so much of it relies on travelling, on meeting people, on catering events or embassy gatherings which are no longer happening. During the pandemic Adelina was offering a pick-up service at her home in Winchmore Hill, but in the last month she has started delivering again. Don’t be like me and waste time: you can place your orders with her until 5 today via Facebook for collection at Victoria train station, and that will be it until September. If you want to know whether her pupusas satisfy the cravings of those whose memories are filled with masa de maiz and the smell of melted cheese on the grill, well, you have to ask Adelina’s Salvadorian customers, but if you’re yet to have your first bite then I can guarantee that you have some beautiful memories of your own you’re about to create: that is, as long as you like cheese, pork and beans.
The Pupusas of Winchmore Hill, by Adelina Bonilla
When I arrived in London 17 years ago with my husband and two year old daughter, like many immigrants I left behind not just a country but a whole life of education and work. In El Salvador I worked as a receptionist at a popular TV channel and was studying a degree in business, but that all went out of the window once we moved. It was not at all easy adapting: we started a new life in the UK, learning the norms and language of a new culture.
I started cooking. My mum used to have a pupuseria in El Salvador where she would sell traditional Salvadorian food to the locals. I was taught from a young age how to make and shape the pupusas, a muscle memory I could draw on when I started cooking traditional Central American dishes to give to family and close friends. I would make tamales de elote (fresh corn tamales), tortas de pescado (salt-fish fritters), pastelitos de carne (beef pasties), quesadillas, torrejas and budin (bread pudding). In the beginning it was difficult to find ingredients that tasted like the ones I remembered from El Salvador, but as time went on I adapted the recipes and found the right flours, and now I have my set suppliers.
In 2013, I opened a home-based business called Dyva Cakes where I offered a range of celebratory cakes, but I kept getting asked the same question again and again about whether I sold typical Salvadorian dishes too. I also noticed that although there was a surplus of Latin restaurants in London ─ for example, Colombian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian ─ there was a lack of any Salvadorian cuisine. As time went on, I decided it might be worthwhile to offer these dishes to members of the small but growing Salvadorian community in London, as well as other nationalities so that they could have a taste of our cuisine. This was how we came about opening our small delivery/takeaway business called Cuzcatlán in 2014, which I run out of my home in North London.
The main thing I sell at Cuzcatlán is pupusas. The pupusa is a traditional Salvadorian griddle-cake made of handmade corn tortilla (thicker than the Mexican variety and made using masa de maiz – a Mesoamerican corn dough) which is then filled with either beans, cheese, chicharron or as well as many other combinations. Pupusas predate the Hispanic influence and Central America and were probably first created centuries ago by the indiginous Pipil tribes. Corn based dishes are staples across Latin America, from tortillas and gorditas in Mexico, to the arepas in Venezuela, where they do the opposite to us and cook the arepa first and fill it with food afterwards. You can find pupusas everywhere where Salvadorians have migrated, particularly the United States. Pupusas are complete meals in themselves, and are typically served with curtido (fermented cabbage, carrot and onion in vinegar) and a homemade tomato sauce. Salvadorians don’t need an excuse to eat pupusas, and normally consume them any time of the day, but the second Sunday of November is the national day of pupusas in El Salvador where there are pupusa eating contests and a competition to make and surpass the world record for the largest pupusa!
When my husband and I started, we sold pupusas at Latin American markets in Elephant and Castle and central London, where we presented ourselves as a new business and were able to begin to build our customer base. But due to the rent for the stalls and the hit and miss nature of what we would sell, we decided to switch to a more informal takeaway/delivery taking orders through Facebook, as well as catering special celebrations such as birthday parties and weddings. Our menu is small and we offer pupusas, tamales, and quesadillas, but it is enough to satisfy the specific cravings of our customers. With the help of Cuzcatlán I have met many natives from my country with whom I have now formed strong friendships, but also people from other countries who are interested in our culture and gastronomy. The majority of our customers are of course Salvadorians but since the pupusa is very well known in Honduras and Guatemala so we also get high demand from these fellow Central Americans.
The Salvadorian Embassy based in Baker Street has been key to the business, as I cater many events that they host across the year. Because I don’t have a restaurant, this has been a great aid in growing Cuzcatlán, as working these events gives me access to the wider Central American community. Over the years I have had the privilege of attending events that aid in promoting tourism and social work in El Salvador, such as helping at the World Travel Market for three consecutive years. I have also catered at various organisations’ events such as Anglo Latin American Foundation (ALAF) and Association of Salvadorians in the United Kingdom (ASUK) at their events serving our traditional dishes. The embassy presents an honour for ‘Salvadorenos en el exterior’ which I have been awarded for my promotion of the gastronomic and touristic culture for two consecutive years. Selling pupusas has been a great opportunity to promote our country and culture ─ something which I’m proud of. As well as my own embassy I have catered at other embassies in London for their own personal events, for example Honduras and Slovakia. All these experiences have made me feel as though I have a role to play in promoting my cuisine and country whilst also representing my people.
Like in every business there are always highs and lows. I have thought many times about whether it is better to close Cuzcatlán due to various personal reasons, but I can never bring myself to because of the support from loyal customers and the obvious love for our food. The pandemic has only strengthened this for me. I had to change the way I do things: pre-pandemic I would post on Facebook that I’m taking orders, and customers would contact me to place their requests for certain combinations. I would then cook everything and take it to Victoria Station, or the embassy, or the Latin Village at Seven Sisters for collection, or they would come to my home. Because the usual method of delivery and collection was obviously quite difficult to complete during lockdown, we temporarily stopped, but I was heartened that on the first day that we announced we were open for collection orders again we received a very high demand.
Unfortunately, the sudden outbreak of pandemic meant that all our May, June and July catering bookings, which included two weddings, were cancelled. Difficult times are ahead for everyone but for smaller family-owned businesses it brings a time of increased uncertainty and stress, as it becomes harder to stay open when our usual avenues of survival are not available to us and there is nothing we can pivot to. For now I am staying optimistic in my kitchen where I will continue to prepare weekly orders in order to keep the business afloat.
I would also like to take the time to thank all my customers during these strenuous times. Since our temporary closure, I’ve had many clients continually ask about when we will begin to take orders again; it brings me a bittersweet joy to know that you love and miss our products.
Adelina Bonilla is the owner of Cuzcatlán and Dyva Cakes. She is taking orders for pupusas via Facebook until 5pm today for Friday collection at Victoria. Adelina was paid for this newsletter.
This newsletter was illustrated by Javie Huxley, a British-Chilean illustrator and activist who has been at the forefront of the Save Latin Village campaign in Seven Sisters. Javie was paid for her work.
Photo credited to travel writer Russell Maddicks. You can see more of his work at LatAmTravelist