Story and Photos by Lindsay Sterling
I met twenty-seven-year-old Herson Peraza by the tomatoes at the supermarket. He was speaking in Spanish to an acquaintance of mine. I asked him where he was from. When he said, “El Salvador,” I just about invited myself over to his house for lunch. Well, actually I did invite myself over to his house for lunch. How embarrassingly forward. My only excuse is that I am on a cooking quest to learn how to make a favorite dish from a native of every country in the world. And I was on the cusp of completing Central America.
On his day off from managing the kitchen at Boda restaurant, he and his sister, Erika Lopez, showed me how to cook their favorite dishes from home: pupusas, thick tortillas stuffed with refried beans and cheese; taquitos, pulled chicken rolled in a tortilla and fried; curtido, a salad of chili and shredded cabbage; and salsa de tomate, a warm red sauce.
When Herson and Erika were kids in El Salvador, their grandparents raised them for seven years while their mom worked in Maine picking crabmeat in a seafood factory. Erika and Herson grew up eating their grandmother’s cooking, but didn’t learn how to cook from her because she wasn’t fond of people being in her kitchen—“Especially men!” Herson added. On weekends Erika and Herson liked spending their allowance going out with their friends to get pupusas at restaurants.
Pupusas are fat tortillas stuffed with different fillings like pork, refried beans, and cheese. When I say stuffed, I don’t mean like a taco or a burrito. The pupusa filling is sealed inside the tortilla itself.
When Herson was 14 years old, and Erika, 19, they joined their mother in the United States. Herson went to Portland High School and Erika started her adult life here. The nearest Salvadorian restaurants were in Boston, so Erika set out to learn how to make pupusas herself. The first time she made them they were so bad she threw them away. (Indeed, my own first attempts were lumpy, wobbly, cracked, and oozing.) Over time she tweaked her method. Now she pats her hands expertly and throws perfect saucer-shaped discs onto the griddle.
Herson learned how to cook in professional restaurant kitchens. He worked for a year at the Japanese restaurant, King of the Roll, and for the last four years at the Thai restaurant, Boda. “At some point in the future I would like to open my own restaurant,” he said. Erika works at Boda, too. It just goes to show, you don’t have to be Thai to cook great Thai food. Likewise, you don’t have to be Salvadorian to cook Salvadorian. You just need someone to teach you. As Herson sees me pick up my fork, he laughs. I ask him what’s up. He explains. “Eating a pupusa with a fork is kind of like eating a hamburger with a fork.”