Mailbag: all things food

If you know anything about me, you know that food (and drink!) is a big part of my life. After growing up in my parent’s kitchen — entering cooking contests from the age of 9 — then coming of age in restaurants, then working as a food writer, I’ve always been very motivated by food.

For me, travel is no exception — in fact, food is one of the major inspirations in why I travel. I’m never happier than when wandering through a local market, discovering new produce and new prepared dishes. I believe that the raw origins of a place’s food culture is always evident in its markets; there’s no better venue to get a grasp of the climate and terrain, to understand what and how people eat, to see the various crude ingredients — animal parts, produce, fresh cheese, just-made tortillas — come together skillfully in entire meals at a vendor’s stand around the corner.

While traveling, I’ve also found food to be one of the greatest connectors, which is why cooking and eating will be such a big part of my docu-series project. When we make food for others, we are caring for them in the most primal and fundamental sense. To accept that gift is an intimate exchange; to respect someone’s food is to respect them. And oh the satisfaction of savoring a meal together; do so and you’ll be closer than you were when you sat down.

There is incredible wonder and joy in newness, of experiencing something you never have before. There is incredible comfort and fulfillment in familiarity, in being reminded of our commonality and shared experiences. In food, we have an opportunity to find both: newness and familiarity. We have the chance to feed ourselves physically and mentally, in two wildly different but equally nourishing ways.

With those sentiments in mind, I thought I would focus this latest mailbag on all things edible (and drinkable!). Judging from your responses, food is something you all are passionate about and interested in, too!

By the way, if you’ve missed them, you can find past mailbags about who I am and what I do, about the logistics of my travel and about all things health-and-wellness on the road through the above links.

Do you eat differently when you travel than you do in the U.S.? I often necessarily eat differently because of different items that are available or fresh and in-season. The way people eat, in different places is very different — for example, here in El Salvador, big lunches of meat, rice, salad and tortillas is very common, where people might eat something lighter and simpler, like pupusas, at dinnertime (kind of the opposite of U.S. tradition). I spend more time in markets when I travel, because I’m trying to learn and understand the food. I cook differently while traveling, too, because of what I can find (not whipping up so many Asian dishes here), but I do make a lot of my tried-and-true favorites, like pastas and sandwiches, almost everywhere I go.

A woman in a red shirt and apron prepares tamales in a modest, outdoor kitchen in a small Salvadoran village.
In smaller villages, it’s common to eat in people’s homes, like Sofía’s, in El Mozote.

When you first get to a place, especially the smaller villages, how are you finding good food? I get this question a lot when I’m in parts of the world where Yelp and Eater — two apps we rely on heavily in the U.S. — don’t exist. One app that does exist almost everywhere is Google Maps, and I use that in cities to search for restaurants regularly. Similar to Yelp, you can see photos and reviews, and occasionally menus. I will often do a series of searches just to try to get a feel for a place, and its neighborhoods. Besides that, I just spend a lot of time walking and looking around. If a place is packed and it smells good, I’m probably going in. I stay away from big, fancy restaurants, which are more likely to be overpriced tourist traps, and without focus. I love places with small or changing menus, places owned by individuals rather than companies. In my mind, the best food often comes from places that might not have frills or pretense, but do have someone with love and skill and a recipe box full of heritage in the kitchen. I also talk to people a lot — if I find a place I like, I strike up a conversation with people who work or are eating there and ask them about other places they like. In villages, it’s actually much easier because there isn’t much area to explore. If you ask someone where a good meal is, they will know straight away, usually in someone’s home. (And if we’re there, we likely already have made contacts.)

Ripe papaya on a cutting board, cut into three pieces.
Papaya is particularly good in Central America.
A woman and her son walks past a colorful market in front of crumbling colonial architecture
Markets are always the best places to find fresh produce.

How do you manage to eat healthfully in Central America while traveling? It is different in every country and city or town of course, but I’ve not found it too hard in most places of Central America (some parts of Guatemala were the exception, where I found an abundance of fried and carb-laden foods and few vegetables of any sort in restaurants). Central American food can be heavy but at the heart of most of it is a solid foundation of corn, rice and beans that in general is less processed and chemical-laden than what we’re accustomed to in the States. Here in El Salvador, I’ve found a food culture that leans heavily into vegetables and soups. If you’re in a place that doesn’t have as much freshness in the local cuisine, it helps to go to the market and cook for yourself for at least some meals. And everywhere in Central America is blessed with beautiful fruits, so I really indulge there. I eat everything and I don’t worry about fried foods or bad foods, rather focusing on supplementing that with lots of fresh, wholesome ingredients.

What are your food safety tips when eating abroad to stay safe and avoid getting sick?

My rules are simple:

  1. Don’t drink the water. In most of the world, tap water can be dangerous because it is not treated properly and can contain many pathogens and harmful bacteria. In my experience, except for those with very little resources, Central American locals do not drink unfiltered water either. (This is not a thing one can become “immune” to.)  This is the reasons many travel doctors will tell you not to eat raw vegetables and fruits, especially in the street markets, because they have been washed with the water. However most restaurants in Central America wash their produce with disinfected water and served bottled or filtered water, and even on the streets (and in my own home) the risk is reduced enough that I eat a lot of raw produce, usually without problem. I don’t drink agua frescas on the street, however, because those are usually made with regular tap water.
  2. Talk to the locals and find out what’s safe. For example, there are certain areas within the city where I’ve been advised by everyone I know not to eat the street food. When it comes to areas where it is safe, look for the stands that are heavily populated. The locals know what will not make them sick.
  3. Take a probiotic to help aid your tummy. This also helps if you’re trying a lot of foods that you’re not accustomed to.

How difficult would it be to follow a vegan diet in Central America? In most places, it would be relatively easy to be a vegetarian, I think. Vegetables, corn, beans and rice are staples, everywhere. There are many varieties of vegetarian pupusas here in El Salvador and many egg-based dishes such as cena tipica and various vegetable rellenos. You can find vegetarian tamales and riguas (corn pancakes with cheese) and pastelitos (little fried empanadas with potatoes and vegetables). Following a vegan diet would be significantly more difficult, but in most bigger cities and towns, the vegan trend is growing and you can find restaurants that specialize in vegan foods. In normal restaurants, it would be necessary to ask a lot of questions. Of course, if you want to cook, the produce is some of the best in the world.

Avocados, orange, bananas and other fruits and vegetables sit on display in front of textiles for sale at a Central America street market.

What are the biggest differences between shopping in U.S. and El Salvador grocery stores? In a lot of ways, the experience is pretty similar. You can browse the produce, get deli cuts, prepared salads and slaws, picked up sliced bread, pasta, pickled vegetables and dairy products. Of course, the basics change. You’ll find familiar produce but also lots of unique produce, and a greater emphasis is placed on items like beans and masa and different types of cream. Items we consider normal can be harder to find, depending on where you are — my grocery store doesn’t have hummus and in smaller towns, it can be really hard to find butter. The global variety we have in the U.S. doesn’t exist everywhere, so you might find it harder to locate various sauces and imported cured meats, things like that — but in bigger cities there are often specialty stores where you can find things like curry paste and fish sauce. And of course things are packaged differently: in Central America, you’ll find a lot more things (refried beans, oil, cream, juice, olives, laundry detergent, salt, all-purpose cleanser) in bags rather than cans, boxes or jars.

How would you describe the ideal pupusa? Mmmm, hot take here, but I LOVE rice-flour pupusas (pupusas de arroz) even more than the more common corn masa variety. To me, the ideal pupusa is thinner with some crispiness to it and the ingredients bleeding through to the comal where the cheese and beans can get nice and caramelized. Some pupusas are cooked with oil and some without, and I definitely like the ones with some oil because of the texture it lends. My go-to is the revuelta: beans, chicharron and quesillo (the typical cheese used in all pupusas).

A woman in a colorful striped shirt and apron flips pupusas at a street stand.
Hot take: rice pupusas are the best.
Pupusas with curtido, salsa, fresh limes, colorful dishes and a Corona on the side.
Of course, corn pupusas are pretty delicious, too.

What’s your favorite Salvadoran foods? The soups in El Salvador are rich and wonderful. Local sopa de gallina is basically the best chicken soup you’ll ever eat with a deep, flavorful broth. Sopa de frijoles is a bit like a thinner chili and always warming and satisfying when topped with cream, cebollines (chives) and avocado. Mariscada is a wonderful seafood soup with a silky broth and an abundance of ocean delicacies. My favorite street snack is the pastelito (see previous description). My favorite desserts are empanadas de leche, made with a sweet batter of plantains filled with a creamy center. I love the simple churrascos — a thin cut of steak or chicken that is usually served with chimol (like pico de gallo), chimichurri, salad, tortillas and a blend of rice and beans that is called casamiento. I’ve already raved plenty about the produce. The seafood, at the coasts, is excellent, especially the fried fishes and my personal favorite, whole-fried prawns (eat the head, tail, everything!) And of course pupusas, the national dish, are glorious. And rellenos, and tamales, and yuca frita …what is there not to love?

Yuca frita, a local El Salvador dish, sits on a wooden table on a colorful dish adorned by a banana leaf.
Yuca frita — topped with curtido, salsa and dried fish — is a Salvadoran classic.

Are there any Salvadoran foods you won’t try? I will try anything twice, but I am not as wild as some locals about sopa de pata (tripe soup) because of its inherent sweetness and very large chunks of tripe that I have a little trouble stomaching!

What kind of herbs are most common in Salvadoran food? Cilantro is king here, and it’s used in a lot of cooking. Coriander, basil, loroco (a flower bud) and pitos (red, bean-like tubes that grow on a tree) are also common.

Two young women enjoy fried seafood at a beachfront hut
There’s nothing like fresh seafood on El Salvador’s coasts.

What are some of the best fruits and vegetables you’ve discovered? So many! Guindas (like sour cherries), jocote (an acidic tree fruit), mango verde, cashew fruits, zapote (kind of similar to papaya in flavor), a squash called pepian, and picaya, which are bitter palm flower clusters. I also have a new affinity for papaya, guayaba (guava), maracuyá (passionfruit), sandía (watermelon), pepino (cucumber) and coconut, which are all better here. 

Vegetables stuffed with cheese sit on a silver platter atop a colorful tablecloth, waiting to be fried.
Picaya, in front, are bitter palm cluster flowers. Here, there are shown with other rellenos, preparing to be battered and fried.

Do you and other tourists get charged more than locals for meals and beers? Here, no. Prices are listed, and there isn’t the same overgrowth of tourism that causes some places do that (most notable was in Cuba, where there were separate menus in English and Spanish and vast price differences). The only kinds of places I could imagine doing that here are in very small villages where the prices are kept extremely low for locals, and in that case, I am very happy to pay a better wage. But in general, as a tourist, I feel very, very welcomed and have always received fair prices whether its in a cab or in a market or certainly in a restaurant. Salvadorans are unfailingly polite and it would be pretty counter culture for someone to try to take advantage of an outsider.

Any good cocktails that are unique to Central America? Mostly, you’ll see the spirits change. In Guatemala, it was Quetzalteca (a potent raw cane liquor), for example, and here the national spirit is Chaparro (like a sweeter young whiskey). In big cities, you’ll find bartenders experimenting and doing creative things with those spirits and other local flavors. One drink I have seen a version of in several countries blends rum or another core spirit, with orange, mango, lime and topped with alguashte, a ground seed. Those are the flavors of the common street mango snack, re-inspired in cocktail form.

A young girl with a white tank top and ripped jeans sips fresh juice out of a bag in a vine-laden cafe in El Salvador.
Central America’s fresh juices are truly excellent.

What are your favorite natural drinks in El Salvador? Fresh juices! The orange juice here is unlike anything you’ll taste in the U.S., and much, much fresher. There are many shops that make all kinds of juices, and I love them all. I also drink a lot of rosa de Jamaica, a cold tea that is made from beautiful dried pink flower buds. And of course, the coffee is excellent.

8 thoughts on “Mailbag: all things food

  1. 𝗍𝗁𝖾 one thing that I enjoy the most when returning to El Salvador is the variety of fruits. I love papayas and mangoes. I grew up in Usulután, and the extensive variety of mangoes in the area was amazing because of the difference in flavor, texture, and aroma.

  2. As usual I enjoy your writing is uplifting and delightful, it feels nice to know the way you perceive the goodness of my country, I’m glad that you are part of El Salvador for now maybe you’ll stay there forever and be an ambassador of our culture to others.

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