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Food, Dining, & Drinks in El Salvador

WARNING: Violence is common in El Salvador, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

El Salvador is home to numerous fruits and vegetables and these were the base of both the region's historic diet as well as their modern diet. Among the local foods were potatoes, peppers, onions, cassava (yucca), cabbage, tomatoes, bananas, pineapple, plantains, coconuts, and guava among others. However, beans and maize (corn) were among the most important historic foods and they remain so today. Historically, the root crops, like cassava (yucca) and plantains were more popular.

The historic people didn't consume meat or seafood as often as the people of El Salvador do today, but both were eaten. Numerous fish, conch, shrimp, octopus, and other sea animals were available. On land chicken, turkey, and small mammals were the foods of choice if they could be caught.

Culinary Influences

Salvadoran Food - Papusas
Papusas

The historic people, most particularly the Mayans used the local ingredients to their advantage. The most significant and long-lasting changes they made to the diet was the introduction of the tortilla and corn-based dough dishes like tamales. The uses of the foods the Mayans incorporated remain the base of the Salvadoran diet today.

The next great influence to the diet arrived with the Spanish. The Spanish brought new spices to the region, many of which were implemented into the diet. The Europeans also brought new foods, most particularly meats and dairy products from cattle and pigs. The Spanish also used the local ingredients to make new dishes, such as guacamole and empanadas.

In more recent times the Salvadorans have continued to make dairy, including sour cream and cheeses a more and more important part of their diet. Additionally, numerous outside influences have arrived to the country as today various ethnic foods can be found in the capital and in other large cities, including Chinese and American foods, although these outside influences have rarely altered the local cuisine.

Staple Foods

Beans: red beans are the most common and are often served pureed as "refried beans"; beans are sometimes mixed with rice
Maize (corn): usually served in the form of a flat bread called a tortilla, but also used for tamales and other dishes
Rice: sometimes cooked in coconut milk, rice can be served alone, or mixed with beans and served together

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Panes Rellenos: hot sandwiches, usually including turkey or chicken, tomatoes, watercress and other vegetables along with mayonnaise and mustard
Pupusa: thick corn tortilla stuffed with pork, cheese, beans, and vegetables
Tamales: corn encasing enclosing chicken, pork, beans, vegetables, and many other foods; seasonal and cooked in banana leaves
Yuca Frita: deep fried cassava roots served with numerous toppings

Dining Etiquette

Dining with others in El Salvador is all about the company and the socialization, not the food. Due to this meals tend to begin late and can go on for quite some time. When you are meeting with locals for a meal, whether at their house or a restaurant, be at least 30 minutes late; many locals will arrive 45 minutes late and meals won't be ready until at least this late. Also try to dress well, but not necessarily formally; fashionable is more important than formal.

Once you and others arrive you may begin the meal with drinks and the food may be further delayed. If alcoholic drinks are involved, as they often are, don't take your first sip until the host offers the standard first toast of "salud." You may be asked to reciprocate the toast, if so, be sure to mention the great hospitality in El Salvador as this is always very well received. If, during the course of the meal you decide you have had enough to drink, simple leave you glass over half full and it should not be refilled.

If you have not already, the seating will generally be pre-arranged so don't find your own seat and don't sit until everyone is present and standing next to or behind their chairs. You may be asked to stand as others leave or return to the table as well, so follow the lead of others. Once the food is finally served the guests will usually be the first served, but you are expected to wait to eat until invited to do so with the words "Buen Provecho." Unlike most Central American countries that eat some foods with their hands, foods in El Salvador are almost exclusively eaten with a fork and knife. Fortunately, in most settings the people care little for your dining style and won't take offense, but in business meetings try to eat in the continental style (fork in the left hand, knife in the right), and if you can easily do so, eat in this style in all situations.

If in a local's home you may well be offered a second helping and accepting is a compliment to the host. Try every dish offered and finish those you enjoy. Fortunately, if there is a dish you don't like, you are expected to leave a small amount of food on the plate when you are finished eating so you may simply leave the foods you don't enjoy, but try everything.

Once you're finished eating, be prepared to stay and socialize for at least an additional hour. During this time you may be offered dessert or coffee, but accepting these isn't as important as staying and enjoying your host's company.

If dining in a restaurant, the host or person who did the initial inviting is expected to pay for everyone. All others should offer to pay, but expect to be turned down and thank the host. To show your gratitude, later invite the host out for a meal. If you are paying, check the bill for a service charge or tip. At some high end restaurants and hotel restaurants a tip will be included; if dining in a restaurant catered to foreigners, leave a tip of up to 10%. Local restaurants don't expect tips, but rounding up is a nice gesture.

Celebrations & Events

Among the best times to try local celebratory foods is during holy weeks as the country is overwhelmingly Catholic and each Christian holiday tends to have foods to match the celebration. Holy Week, which lasts from Palm Sunday to Easter (the dates shift from year to year, but are generally in March or April) requires a combination of restraint and celebration as meat is forbidden some days, fasting is required others, and on Easter candies and huge quantities of foods are consumed. However, most people celebrate Holy Week with family only.

Perhaps a better celebration for the foreigner is Fiestas Agostinas, which takes place every August in the capital city. Although this festival isn't centered around food, food is a very integral part of the festival, as are sports, arts, and performances. Numerous traditional foods are available in the capital during the festival, all of which are local favorites.

Drinks

Sodas and colas have taken over in El Salvador in recent years, including many international brands, although the local cola "Kolachampan" is made from sugarcane, which gives it a more distinct sweetness and flavor. Coffee is also widely drunk, most of which is grown in the country. Juices are common in the country, but they vary from simple juices to mixes. Lemon refrescos (sweetened drinks) and pineapple ensalada (mixed with chopped fruits) are local specialties, while their tamarind juice is generally served without alterations. Atol shuco is another local specialty; this drink is made from purple corn mixed with water or milk. Shaved ice drinks are ideal for a hot day, including minutas, which is mixed with fruit syrup, horchata, which contains numerous spices, and licuados, which are mixed with fruits. Coconut milk and is also a common street-side beverage.

The locals usually reach for a beer when drinking alcohol in El Salvador; most beers are imports, but the locally brewed "Suprema" is also popular. For a contrast to the beer, chicha is fermented with corn, but similar to beer. Nearly all other alcohols are available in El Salvador, but not as common as beer. Of these other drinks, most are imported.

The tap water in El Salvador should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: March, 2013