For Eng, a Gaithersburg resident who was born in China, Sunday’s annual World of Montgomery Festival in Wheaton was a chance to try the Salvadoran signature dish for the first time. Her daughter was especially curious about trying the food from the country of origin for many of her high school classmates.
Four local Salvadoran restaurants competed in a cook-off for the title of best pupusa maker in town.
“This was such a great idea,” Eng said. “It is the first time in my life I learned about this country.”
The fourth annual Montgomery festival, which showcased the county’s diversity through music, dance, visual arts and storytelling, featured the traditions of China, El Salvador, Ethiopia and India at International Village exhibition tents. The festival also included a Parade of Nations from around the globe to celebrate the multiculturalism of the Washington region.
The pupusa contest, however, was one of the focal points. Montgomery, a minority majority county, is home to many of the more than 260,000 Salvadorans who have settled in the region. Many came to the United States as refugees in the 1980s, fleeing El Salvador’s bloody civil war.
County officials hope that introducing residents to something as simple as the pupusa will encourage diversity and show the county to be a welcoming place for immigrants. Montgomery has a sisterhood agreement with Morazan, one of El Salvador’s 14 departamentos, or governmental divisions.
“I grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s, and this was a very white suburban community,” said Bruce Adams, director of the county’s Office of Community Partnerships, which organizes the annual festival. “I didn’t even move, and the whole world came here.”
The pupusas represent Salvadoran tradition but also are part of Montgomery’s diversifying heritage, Adams said. “We want people to understand what it means to be a global citizen,” he said.
As the largest Hispanic group in Montgomery and in the region, Salvadorans have brought their cuisine with them. Most Latino and some mainstream supermarkets carry pupusas in their refrigerated aisles. A few high-end grocery stores sell them hot in their prepared food sections.
Establishments known as pupuserias, which specialize in the dish, have opened in areas with large Latino populations, such as Langley Park in Maryland, the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood and Bailey’s Crossroads in Northern Virginia.
At least 50 Salvadoran restaurants in the D.C. region serve pupusas as the principal item on their menu, said Jorge Ribas, president of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. And there also are less formal pupusa distributors.
“Home businesses sometimes sell the most authentic pupusas,” Ribas said. “And the food trucks sell them where there are laborers, all across the metropolitan area.”
On Sunday, people stood in line at the four tents offering samples. They had pupusas revueltas, which are made with beans, cheese and chicharron (cooked pork meat); cheese and bean pupusas; and cheese pupusas.
A crowd started to line up at La Frontera Restaurant’s tent when foodies learned that besides the traditional pork and cheese pupusas, the restaurant offered organic pupusas stuffed with zucchini and cheese.
“A Salvadoran, by tradition, will ask you for a pupusa revuelta,” said Gilberto Mejia, owner of La Frontera, who runs two restaurants with his wife, Norma. “But we also like to offer some variety.”
In El Salvador, pupusas can be for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and they often are cooked on a wood fire using a pottery griddle. Traditionally, they are served with curtido — a pickled cabbage relish — and tomato sauce. Though it can prove messy, they are usually eaten by hand.
“The pupusa has become world famous,” said Jesus Alberto Contreras, owner of El Boqueron II, who brought 1,000 pupusas revueltas and served them with a spicy curtido that made his tent quite popular.
But not the most popular. Mejia’s La Frontera Restaurant, of Silver Spring, took first place.
“The customer decides,” Contreras said when he learned his restaurant did not win.
Manny Hidalgo, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Center and an organizer of Sunday’s event, said the contest was about far more than determining who is the best pupusa maker in the county.
“Of course we want to introduce the pupusa to many new people,” Hidalgo said, but the larger goal is to introduce people to different cultures.