Pupusas are such a big deal in El Salvador, there's even a national day dedicated to this grilled tortilla snack. "Nobody goes to work and they just eat pupusas," says Marvin Antonio Barahona, who has sold thousands of this taco-like dish from his Raza Central food truck in Sydney.
"They [try to] break the world record every year, [for] making the world's biggest pupusa," he adds. "It's out of control."
It's true. For the 2007 National Pupusa Day, a tortilla shaped from 3.15 metres of maize dough was stuffed with 18 kilograms of cheese and an equivalent amount of chicharrón in a San Salvador park — big enough to clinch the record. Five years later, a 4.25m pupusa took out the title. But the current record was set during 2015's National Pupusa Day, in Olocuilta, El Salvador. There, the dough was formed from rice — as is tradition in that region — and stretched up to 4.5 metres, gaining it Guinness World Record recognition.
But long before the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador singled out pupusas as the country's national dish — and inspired these blockbuster, record-setting versions — Barahona knew he wanted to showcase his homeland's cuisine in Sydney (in a normal, snack-friendly size).
"I'm the first one in Australia to have a food truck with pupusas. There's no other one," he claims.
It's a dream he's had since arriving as a 12-year-old in Australia, when his family migrated from San Salvador in 1989.
"I wanted to open something to show people what my culture is," he says. Barahona hoped to contrast the war-torn stereotype of El Salvador — perpetuated from a 12-year-long conflict that caused people to flee the country — with something more positive.
And that's exactly what he's done with his Raza Central food truck, which he started five years ago with his partner Laura Reyes, who prepares the food and is also from El Salvador.
In that time, they've cooked pupusas, tamales and other Central American dishes at more than 800 events. Their mobile kitchen has travelled 300 kilometres away from Sydney to serve people in Orange. Raza Central has catered for TV shows (the truck made a brief-but-colourful cameo on Stan's recent Bump series) and has even fed the army.
It's why the local El Salvador Embassy recognised him for his work in December 2019.
"I got the Salvadoran of the Year award, which I didn't want to have. I'm not very good at taking things, because I think other people deserve it more," he says.
But is there another Australian who can talk as enthusiastically as he can about pupusas?
"You can have it [at] breakfast, lunch or dinner," says Barahona, who advocates this 24/7 appreciation of the snack. It's so ubiquitous in his homeland that it didn't feel "right" that they weren't really available in Australia.
"When you look at it, you think it's just a tortilla [like Mexican tacos]," he says. But there are key differences: like the thickness of the maize dough, how it's crisply grilled on both sides, and how the pupusa is richly stuffed with ingredients like salsa, lava-hot cheese and curtido, a fermented cabbage condiment.
The blazing, straight-off-the-grill warmth of pupusas is part of the charm. "But you can't eat them straight away. They're so hot," he says. Watching how people handle this can be entertaining, Barahona notes.
"You're there, picking it slowly, opening it. Everyone has a different way. Some people pour the salsa [on it] to cool it down. Some people, they're blowing it. It's funny," he says. "That's part of the experience."
Raza Central's most popular item is the mixed pupusa with pork, cheese and refried beans, but there are vegetarian-friendly alternatives made with zucchini and cheese, beans and carrot as well.
Raza Central also offers its version of a tamale, from a recipe that his mother inherited from his grandmother. "My mum could make tamales with her eyes closed," Barahona says.
"Every Latin American country has their own tamale. For instance, in Nicaragua, they make this nacatamale, and it's huge. They put pork, meat, they put too much stuff in it. They love it, but it's not my favourite," he says.
So how does a tamale from El Salvador contrast with the more familiar Mexican kind? It's "a lot different and a lot better”, he says quite confidently. "We keep the meat minimum because the flavour is in the dough. I could have 100 tamales and they could be gone in half an hour. You have to get there early."
Raza Central's version is made with the same maize dough that the pupusas are shaped from. He even offers a vegetarian version, wrapped in corn leaf (instead of banana) and flavoured with corn itself.
In addition to regularly selling 500 pupusas at events, Barahona wants to showcase the food of El Salvador in a permanent location: the new Raza Central restaurant at Camden in Western Sydney.
"I wanted to open something to show people what my culture is."
Here, he's expanding the menu and offering drinks from his homeland, like cebada (which has a strawberry flavour) and horchata ("it's different to the Mexican horchata. It's more like a smoothie"). There'll be more traditional soups (tripe soup, beef soup) and an expanded pupusa line-up. Think garlic and cheese, carrot and something made with a plant from El Salvador called loroco.
"When I get the loroco going, it doesn't even last me an hour. It's so popular," he says. Barahona says the ingredient is hard to get and only available for three months a year, which adds to the diner frenzy for it. Loroco's flavour is hard to describe, but he compares it to ground-up broccoli with a tangy, sour essence. "You can smell it. If I give you loroco and you put it in your pocket, I know you have it in your pocket,” he says.
Raza Central's owner believes his restaurant might be the only one dedicated to El Salvador's cuisine at the moment. And should the Camden one go well, there are plans to open a second outpost in the city in the next 18 months. "I've got a lot of customers all over the place," he says. And people need their piping-hot pupusas.
Raza Central opened its Sydney restaurant on 27 February at 19/1-15 Murray Street, Camden.
Plantain empanadas are a popular snack in El Salvador. This recipe features the sweetening agent plantain, which is a member of the banana family and, despite its taste, is relatively low in sugar.