Earlier this week I went to the Union Square Whole Foods, which is one of my go-to-places when I have evening city plans and heading back to Brooklyn is simply not worth it. I love the dinner potential of this location. I also love sitting upstairs and anonymously watching the hubbub inside and out of Whole Foods.
I tend to like to each sushi, but I am also a huge fan of their salad bar and the warm food too. I even like the soup and really can't think of anything I haven't liked there. On this particular day I was craving protein and greens because I had carbed out all day.
I walked from work to my happily anticipated meal of veggies and grilled meats. I am usually a denouncer of the let's-serve-everything-and-get-it-all-wrong mentality upon which most salad bar/sandwich establishments operate in Midtown. At Whole Foods, however, at least the Union Square location, the salad is always fresh, crisp and interesting.
I pilled spinach and grilled beats into my green bowl. I also added artichoke hearts and fresh peas and much more. When I had nearly more than I thought I could eat I navigated the busy space until I made my way toward the drinks. Having a bottle of water in hand I then went to the line formed to get on to the express line. This put me right around the prepared foods that are not in the food bars, to the right of the soups.
I looked down blankly at a burrito and my eyes kept moving. I saw a disk-like thing and I remember thinking, "Oh those look like..." and then I looked again. I had to edge closer. In a small package I saw two corn disks with a small container of a red sauce on top of it. I read the label, "Pupusas!" They were pork. I was shocked. I looked at my salad and debated abandoning it. I decided against it, since it would undo the purpose of being eco-friendly by using a reusable bowl. I examined the permitter around the pupusas. They were surrounded by burritos on the right and quesadillas on the left. I supposed they had been categorized correctly. They are, after all, often made with cheese.
At this precise moment I felt profound pride. I know you may think that this is a silly way to react to some corn packed with pork, but for me it was so much more than that. Salvadoreans refer to themselves as, 'la pulga'--the flea--of the Americas. I've heard family make jokes about how if the surrounding countries don't continue to take our borders, the Pacific will do it for them.
My whole life I have only heard of El Salvador on the international stage for two reasons, both negative. The first is the horrific civil war of the late 70s and 80s. Today the international community knows El Salvador for the extreme measures and organization of rouge gangs. These are hardly reasons for me to be proud of my mother's mother country, but I am. We are an agricultural people, small but strong, industrious and proud.
When my mother came back from her vacation in El Salvador her aunt gave her beans she had grown on her land. I had the luck of visiting my parents recently and ended up staying for dinner. My mom heated some beans which I took without much interest. Yet, when I put them in my mouth I felt the difference. They were clearly Tia Sarah's beans. In El Salvador we call the variety that she grows, frigoles de seda--literally, silk beans. They are called that because they don't take as long to cook as lower quality beans and when they are done the texture is extremely refined, like silk, without any grittiness at all.
Seeing one of our more popular meals among the sushi and thai salad, biryani, lasagna, and dumplings of the international foods that are so readily available and visible in New York was a feat! Of course there are pupuserias in New York, especially on Long Island and to some degree in Queens and Brooklyn, but they are mainly patronized by Salvadoreans, largely escaping the consciousness of non-latinos who enjoy international cuisine.
Inspired by my finding at Whole Foods I ate my food and shuffled over to Barnes and Noble. I went to the international cook books. I saw many options, ones that even surprised me. Yet, there was no cook book on El Salvador; there wasn't even one on Central America. I did, however, find a cook book on Latin cooking and when I flipped to the back and looked up 'El Salvador' I found a recipe for Salvadorean stuffed tortillas. This is the equivalent of calling burritos Mexican stuffed tortillas: wrong and barely informative. I was annoyed that the cook book failed to correctly name the dish, but at least there was a flea's size tidbit of knowledge on Salvadorean cooking.
Hopefully, these small steps for Salvadorean cuisine will take on momentum. In that spirit, I highly encourage you to check out Whole Foods' pupusas. I will follow up in a few weeks with more authentic places for you to visit. I have to trek out to Jamaica to get exact addresses.
Whole Foods Market Union Square
40 E 14th Street btwn Broadway and University Place