Experience Preserving Salvadoran Matriarchs’ Recipes
by Karla T. Vásquez
She dipped her pinky finger in the bubbling tomatada, brought it to her mouth, and with an instinct of a cook and woman who has been cooking since her early teenage years, added more water, salt, and a few slices of jalapeño to the sauce. I asked her, “¿Mami, como sabes que le falta?” “Ay, Karlita, solo sabes. Tu paladar te dice que es lo que falta,” she said.
Salvadoran food and flavors, have given my life a sense of belonging and grounding. Asking my mother about our traditional Salvadoran recipes has been a habit that started when I was in Elementary school. Sometimes, she found my incessant curiosity frustrating, presumably because I was asking about something that had taken her whole life to develop. As I got older, I tried different methods “dictate to me what you’re doing, and I’ll write it down.” She would simply say with an eye roll, “Ay, Karla.” As if to say, you’ll never learn that way. But really, it didn’t matter what questions I asked because she often defaulted to the tried and true custom of passing down recipes, techniques and tips by mouth; other times, she would suggest hands-on practice.
These experiences as a young girl would later contrast with a revelation I experienced in cooking school. A classmate once asked our instructor, “Why do we use French words to describe what we’re doing, words like sauté?” Our instructor looked up for a moment, and then said something I will never forget and it changed me forever. “It must be because the French were the first to document that technique,” she said.
Documentation is power; it’s what affords permanence and ubiquity I realized.
It was then that my search for Salvadoran cookbooks began. I ran to the internet for answers. Unfortunately, the internet came up short. I only found two books. One in Spanish and one in English, recently published in 2014. I was disheartened. Why is it so hard to find Salvadoran narratives and even harder to find Salvadoran recipes?
As I’ve unpacked this question, I’ve come to accept that the Salvadoran community is still trying to heal and move forward from long episodes of imperialism, poverty and post-civil war consequences and so the road will be long to documenting our culture. The sacrifices of our matriarchs and parents before us however, have made way for a unique point in our history. My generation wants things to be different. We want to remember, we want to cement who we are in this digital era and not by any vessel other than us telling our stories.
Now, my mother’s response is different. She makes time for me to ask questions, to ask for clarification, she even allows me to record her consejos, recetas, and tips. When I asked her recently, why she thought my documenting was important? She said, “Bueno, es importante, porque todo tiene raíz, y tu raíz es tu existir. Entender tu raíz, es entender tu existir.”
“Well, it’s important, because everything has a root, having a root means you exist. Understanding your roots, is understanding why you exist.”
Understanding my roots, has meant understanding the precious value of my mother’s instinct in the kitchen. The way she has managed her kitchen is the way she’s moved around in her life, adjusting, changing things, and always listening to her intuition. Preserving, celebrating and documenting her recipes and our Salvadoran ways not only honors the hard lessons she’s learned, but it guarantees that her instinct will live in me and in my cooking. Just like her mother’s, lives in her. Only this time, the difference is, I’m writing it down.
My mom’s recipe.
Teresa’s Rellenos de Guisquil
Salvadoran cuisine loves rellenos. Similarly, to Mexican chiles rellenos, Salvadorans love stuffed, and fried food. Salvadorans however utilize guisquil, hand-made Salvadoran-style tortillas, russet potatoes, green beans, and even pacaya, a native edible flower to El Salvador. Rellenos are popular all throughout the country with regional interpretations.
Karla T. Vasquez, is a food justice advocate by day and a food historian by night. She is currently researching and writing a Salvadoran cookbook, highlighting the cuisine, the stories of Salvadoran women and the food history of the cuisine’s ingredients. Learn more at salvisoul.com.
½ lb. Queso Fresco
½ teaspoon of flour
Salt to taste
2 cups of water
Salsa de Tomate
4 Vine Tomatoes
¼ cup of Grapeseed oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ medium-sized red onion
½ teaspoon chicken bouillon
½ cup of water
- Wash and cut both ends of the guisquiles. Cut six thin slices from each guisquil.
- Using a wide medium-sized pan, place water in pan to boil. Add one pinch of salt.
- Once water has come to boil, add guisquil slices to the pan. Par-cook the slices.
- Take par-cooked slices, pat dry. Allow to cool. Meanwhile, take queso fresco and crumble until it’s completely soft and mashed.
- Assemble the rellenos by pairing the guisquil slices together. In between the two slices, add a layer of the mashed cheese.
- Begin to heat the pan and heat the oil.
- Crack the four eggs, separating the egg whites from the yolks. Beat the four egg whites until you have firm peaks. Add the yolk, and the ½ teaspoon of flour.
- Once oil is hot, start coating the rellenos, but dipping and scooping the egg coating on the rellenos. Place rellenos in oil and fry each side for 2 minutes. Finish frying and place on paper towel.
- Roast tomatoes, garlic, and onion until skin is slightly charred.
- Blend roasted ingredients with salt, bouillon and water. Strain sauce.
- Place tomato sauce in a wide medium sized pan, bring to a boil, and add rellenos to the sauce. Cook for an additional two minutes.
- Serve with white rice.