Young Chefs In El Salvador Are Breathing New Life Into Traditional Cuisine

Cristina Reyes Clark winds her way through the bustling market in El Salvador's capital city, San Salvador, stopping to touch and smell fruits and vegetables along the way. Young, tattooed and dressed in shorts, she stands out in the traditional farmers market full of conservative abuelas (grandmothers) with their heaping baskets.

But there is at least one thing these women have in common: their love of ancestral food.

Reyes Clark, the owner of Yemaya (meaning food from the earth), a catering and pop-up business, is part of an emerging movement in El Salvador, composed of young chefs who are integrating traditional foods into contemporary cuisine.

"We used to go to McDonald's and Pizza Hut a lot when we were kids. We thought it was cool, man," she quips. "It was from the States, so you know, anything from the U.S. was considered better than here."

But attitudes about American fast food are changing. Salvadorans are becoming more curious about ancestral vegetables and herbs, and shows like Top Chef and No Reservations are enticing them to try innovative ways of returning to their culinary roots.

Reyes Clark picks up a piece of paterna, a large and vibrant seedy green pod that grows all over the country. "I'm going to make hummus out of the seeds," she says. "The first time I made it for my friends, they thought I was crazy, but then when they tasted it, they were surprised by how good it was."

Paterna, along with leafy green nutritional powerhouses — mora, chipilin and chaya — grow easily in the wild, but over the years they have been replaced with processed foods. You are not going to find paterna in the supermarket, Reyes Clark says.

This is because most of El Salvador's food culture was wiped out, says Luis May, a doctor who focuses on locally sourced food as medicine. He has a garden behind his office where he grows many indigenous plants and teaches his clients about their nutritional value. "We used to be a culture of corn, now we are a culture of wheat," he says. "During the conquest nearly 500 years ago, the Spanish abolished many ancestral foods because they were considered sacred."

The civil war that devastated the country in the 1980s only made things worse. Holly Jones, who has extensively researched traditional food in El Salvador, describes the internal conflict as the perfect storm.

"Just when the war was happening, supermarket culture took off," she says. "Wealthy Salvadorans were too scared to be out in the open air markets because it was dangerous, so they started buying imported, processed foods at supermarkets. At the same time, campesinos [farmers] came to the city to work and saw that their employers were eating packaged foods. Going into the forest to get food became stigmatized as something poor people did."

Fatima Mirandal, 25, considers herself lucky to have grown up in and around the market. "My grandmother worked there, and her mother and all of the women before them," she says. "I would always be at their feet touching and smelling the vegetables and herbs."

Mirandal and her partner, Mario Portillo, are the chefs at the ultra-hip, newly opened restaurant Boca Boca, hidden in a tree-lined residential area of San Salvador, where they focus on what they call food nostalgia. "We take old ingredients from the [farming areas] and combine them in new ways. The flavor is new and exciting for our generation, and brings back a flood of good memories for the older people," Mirandal says.

Mirandal's 68-year-old grandmother, Elva Duran, is thrilled to see these foods making a comeback. "When I was young, we didn't have any of these fast-food chains that have no health value whatsoever," she says. "I think it's incredible that this generation is taking steps to keep our roots alive."

Gracia María Navarro and Alexander Herrera are developing eye-catching, minimalist dishes as part of their pop-up project, Raiz (root), which creates a fine-dining experience inspired by tales of food from Herrera's grandmother and great-grandmother.

"I didn't know anything about indigenous foods here when I was younger, but started to get interested when I was in culinary school," says Herrera. "One day I asked my great-grandmother about something I saw in the market, and then all of a sudden every time I went over to visit, they were telling me more and more about things they used to eat, and what combinations they used to eat them in. So, I started putting the combinations together — but presenting them in an entirely different way."

Herrera jokes that the "goal is to show that El Salvador is more than just pupusas and pandillas."

Reyes Clark agrees. El Salvador has so much more in the ways of culinary possibility than just pupusas, she says. "We have these amazing tenquique mushrooms that grow here in the summer, and traditionally our grandmothers would use them in eggs or pupusas, but I like to go gather them along with a whole bunch of other herbs from the mountains and make what I call wild paella."

The change in attitude is definitely happening, albeit slowly, says May, who is still concerned about the amounts of sodium and sugar his patients consume from processed foods. "Most working-class Salvadorans still hit places like Pizza Hut or McDonald's when it's pay day," he says. "But the good news is that we tend to absorb trends from the U.S. pretty quickly, so the whole local movement is starting to take off."

Jaime Jacques is a freelance writer currently based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Her work has appeared in Salon, Roads and Kingdoms and Narratively, among others. She is the author of Moon El Salvador.

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