Papusas! An El Salvadorian Specialty with vinegar cabbage slaw and pico de gallo

I had my first papusa 2 years ago in the Mission District in San Francisco. It was 1:30 am, and I was drunk. There was a woman who spoke no English who sold these from a cart out front of the bars. They would come off her griddle piping hot and oozing with cheese. They were perfect, magically circles at the wee hours of the morning.

I learned how to make papusas recently from the El Salvadorian women at my work. Now that I live in DC, there is a much larger population of El Salvadorian immigrants than there ever was in California. That means I might not get as much Mexican food as I would like, but I get plenty of papusas.

Papusas are made with Maseca, a cornmeal treated with lime. It has a very fine consistency and a somewhat acidic flavor that is great for tortillas. Papusas are normally served with a vinegar based slaw and a sauce that tastes like a very thin, somewhat reduced salsa that is served warm. I made a pico de gallo to go with mine at home. Papusas are also very versatile, and can be filled with cheese, beans, meat, or any combination for those. But the main reason I love papusas is because the ratios are amazingly easy to remember.

It's 1 to 1.



  • 1 part maseca (about 1 cup will yield generous main dish portions for 2 people)
  • 1 part water (also approximate. You need a little more water as this should be a very moist yet still workable dough)
  • Beans/cooked meat/desired filling
  • Melting cheese, like monterey jack or mozzarella
  1. If using multiple filling ingredients, mix as desired. I used cheese, black beans and red bell pepper. Mash beans or grind meat slightly to make a more uniform filling that will hold its shape well.
  2. Mix maseca and water until a paste forms. It will hold its shape, but it will be moist
  3. Break off a ball about 2 inches in diameter and pat into a circle about 1/4 inch thick. Wet your hands with water or oil as necessary to prevent cornmeal from sticking. 
  4. Form a small cup with your hands and place filling in the center. Be generous. I use a large tablespoon, but only do what you are comfortable with.
  5. Fold sides up around the filling and slowly begin patting the papusa into a circle again. Be sure not to leave any tears otherwise the cheese will melt out of the papusa. Pat out to into a circle no thicker than half an inch.
  6. Place papusas in a hot, lightly greased cast iron skillet and cook until done (until marked on both sides. See picture). Serve immediately
You can stop here if you want, or you can continue with the slaw, which is great for any old day, any old BBQ or to replace any old salad

Vinegar Slaw

  • 1/2 head green or red cabbage, shredded
  • 2 carrots, julienned
  • sprigs of cilantro
  • red wine vinegar
  • olive oil
  • oregano
  • cumin
  • salt and pepper
  • Shred carrots and cabbage into a large bowl. Tear whole cilantro leaves from stems and gently toss with cabbage
  • Separately, mix vinegar, olive oil, oregano and cumin in desired proportions. Should about 1 Tbsp of oil to 3 or 4 Tbsp vinegar. 
  • Dress cabbage as desired. Season with salt and pepper to taste and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Even though I'd recommend the reduced warm salsa, I'll include the pico de gallo recipe because I know how to do it, and because it's an easy addition to any taco night or party.

Pico de Gallo

  • 5 large tomatoes, diced
  • 2medium red onions, minced
  • 1 bunch cilantro,
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed and seeded, minced
  • lime juice
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Mix tomatoes, onion, cilantro and garlic together in a large bowl. Lightly toss when stirring so as not to break the tomatoes too much. Add more or less onion if desired, but it should look pretty even.
  2. Add lime juice, salt and pepper to taste. If you want more heat, add another jalapeno or a couple dashes of hot sauce
  3. Refrigerate until serving


  1. These look SO delicious. There is a place near us that serves up delicious papusas for cheap...but I have always wanted to make my own. Thanks!


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