The Pan American Food

Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Image of pupusas

Corn is the basis for many dishes in the Americas, such as El Pulgarcito’s pupusa, pictured here. It’s also symbolic of food’s role in the rise and fall of civilizations.

The pupusas at El Pulgarcito come with a delicious assortment of fillings, including beans, cheese, loroco (the herby, nutty bud of a flowering vine) and chicharrón, which in El Salvador refers to finely shredded pork (unlike in Mexico, where it is a crispy fried pork skin). But for connoisseurs, the tastiest temptation of a pupusa is the flavour of the corn: not sweet like a roasted cob at the peak of summer, but savoury with a tender, almost crumbly texture and toasted flecks throughout. Sampling the pupusas, tamales, and other Salvadoran dishes at El Pulgarcito offers up a gourmet delight and an introduction to one of history’s great culinary mysteries.

Corn is the Pan American food par excellence. Before Columbus ever set sail, corn was being grown as far afield as northern Argentina, Chile, southern Ontario and Quebec hundreds and even thousands of kilometres from its original domestication site in what is now southwestern Mexico. Its origins, however, were disputed long after 1492. Europeans dubbed it “Turkish wheat,” Turks called it “Egyptian grain,” and in India, where Columbus thought he was sailing, it became known as “Mecca corn.”

The grain spread so widely because of its remarkable productivity and its ability to grow in mountainous terrain that could not support wheat or rice. Indeed, cooks in the Himalayan foothills prepare a corn flatbread called makki di roti that resembles the corn tortillas of Mexico. But its adoption on marginal land is what gave corn its reputation as the food of the poor.

Doctors, on the other hand, came to associate corn with a host of terrible maladies, including skin rash, diarrhea, insanity and, ultimately, death.

The answer is in the recipe. More than a thousand years earlier, indigenous women learned to cook corn with alkaline substances, either wood ash or mineral lime, which freed the bound vitamins in the grain and magnified its nutritional value. The processed corn dough, known as nixtamal, was used for tortillas, tamales and pupusas. Of course, these early cooks knew nothing of vitamins and minerals, but the recipe spread widely, perhaps because they liked the flavour, which can still be savoured in the pupusas at El Pulgarcito. Because Columbus carried corn back across the Atlantic without the indigenous women who knew how to prepare it, pellagra spread widely in the Old World. Thus, cooking and taste may be unheralded factors in the rise and fall of civilizations.

El Pulgarcito

2260 Birchmount Rd.