(Credit: Daniel Kavanaugh)

Made in ‘The Mission’

In San Francisco's vibrant Mission District, Latino culture thrives. Tucked among the numbered streets of one of the city's buzziest neighbourhoods are shops selling colourful quinceañera (a girl’s 15th birthday celebration) dresses and Mexican bakeries filled with the delicious scent of sweet breads. Outdoor food vendors steam tamales beneath eye-catching murals, while hip-shaking bachata tunes pour out of cars driving past.

It's a multicultural tapestry of Nicaraguans, Bolivians, Mexicans and more than a dozen more Latin American and Caribbean nationalities joined through circumstance and familiarity, one in which distinct cultural nuances come together within a collective of shared heritage. For the Mission's Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans, it’s the pupusas that keep them rooted in home.

A land of extremes

Just under 4,200km south-east of San Francisco sits El Salvador, Central America's smallest and most densely populated country. It's a land of extreme natural beauty – one brimming with jungly volcanoes, white-sand beaches and emerald-blue lagoons – as well as extensive turmoil, including a devastating 12-year civil war in the 1980s and early '90s, natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, and current gang wars that have caused citizens to flee en masse.

In fact, during the during the 1970s and '80s, almost two million people emigrated and escaped from warn-torn Central America, taking little more than the clothes on their backs and the traditions that sustained them.

Many came to San Francisco to join relatives who had emigrated there during World War Two to work in the shipyards, reap the benefits of the city’s demand for manual labour, and to join an already thriving Latino culture.

(Credit: Daniel Kavanaugh)

A migrating dish

Salvadorans have been making pupusas, round and thick corn-flour tortillas stuffed with savoury ingredients like cheese, pork and chicken, for millennia. The dish dates back nearly 2,000 years to the country's indigenous Pipil people, and they've been a staple of the country’s rural areas (eventually proliferating its cities as well) ever since. Over the last century, Salvadorans migrating to neighbouring Central American countries like Honduras and Guatemala to escape political and economic hardships began opening pupusa stands. Today, wherever you find a Salvadoran population, you'll find pupusas as well.

“You can’t get any more Salvadoran than a pupusa,” said Raul Montalvo, who emigrated to San Francisco in 1982 at age 26, primarily due to the civil war, but returns frequently to El Salvador to see family and friends. “The peculiar smell, the combination of the hot pupusa topped with chilled curtido [pickled slaw]... For me, getting pupusas every so often is the closest form of being back home.”

Traditional pupusas are crafted from simple ingredients readily available in El Salvador: items like beans, cheese, maize and loroco, an edible flowering plant that grows throughout northern Central America and southern Mexico and has the earthy taste of an artichoke. They can be prepared in bulk and are extremely filling. In essence, pupusas are a food you can count on for availability and substance.

(Credit: Daniel Kavanaugh)

Pupusas and tamales: they are our comfort foods,” said Ernesto and Bertha Rivera.

(Credit: Daniel Kavanaugh)

Where people gather

When Salvadorans settled in the Mission District, pupuserias – eateries that specialise in pupusas – came with them. One in particular, Balompié Cafe, has been serving patrons for three decades. The unassuming corner space is chock full of football paraphernalia (balompié means ‘football’ in Spanish), with banners sporting the names of professional football teams hanging from the ceiling and walls, and trophies from the owners’ own league games filling the shelves. Manager Evelyn Figueroa oversees the causal eatery, which acts as a community gathering space for many of the Mission's residents, some who've been coming here since Balompié first opened in 1987.

This includes Ernesto and Bertha Rivera, Salvadoran natives who both emigrated to the US for university in the 1960s, and stayed and raised a family in the Mission. Bertha grew up in San Salvador, El Salvador's capital city, and says her family would typically pick up pupusas from local pupuserias to eat at home.

But for Ernesto, pupusas stir up memories of his early years growing up on a coffee farm near the Salvadoran municipality of Berlin. The smell of maize mixed with melting cheese brings him right back to those days when his mother would heat them in an iron skillet, the oil crackling and sizzling, while he waited eagerly outside for her to finish. The couple passed their love of pupusas on to their son Alex, now 48, who remembers them mostly at family holiday gatherings in the Mission, when he and his cousins would vie with each other over their favourite flavour combinations.

(Credit: Daniel Kavanaugh)

A well-honed process

In Balompié's kitchen, Patty Jimenez forms thick, handmade tortillas from masa harina (corn flour) – or in some cases, rice flour – into balls that she then dimples and stuffs with ingredients like queso (cheese), chicarón (pork) and loroco. After slapping the balls between her palms into disc-like shapes, she grills them in oil several at a time, crisping them on each side until the cheese begins to ooze.

Once they're ready, Jimenez places them on the counter to be delivered to the table, along with a bowl of curtido and a spicy red sauce made with tomatoes, onion, cilantro, garlic and salt.

Figueroa said the pupusas are decidedly different from those in El Salvador: they're fluffier and fuller, with a greater tortilla-to-filling ratio – a result, she said, of a much more lucrative local economy. They are on Balompié's menu morning, noon and night, a dish that is as appropriate for a festive occasion as it is for a daily meal.

(Credit: Daniel Kavanaugh)

A new life in San Francisco

Like Bertha Rivera, Figueroa grew up in San Salvador. She was a youngster during the Salvadoran Civil War, when her memories include an endless stream of gunfire between two buildings on either side of Figueroa's own residence. After Figueroa's younger brother was killed in an earthquake, her mother decided to emigrate to the US, trading in a job selling homemade aguas frescas (unfiltered fruit juices) and charamuscas (juice frozen in bags) for a better life for her family. Figueroa joined her five years later, at age 16.

Though she was living in the heart of the Mission, Figueroa immediately set to work distancing herself from Salvadoran culture. She made friends with native English speakers and spent her nights eating at pasta restaurants and burger joints. While pupusas had been a part of Figueroa's childhood, she didn't envision them as part of her new life in the US.

(Credit: Jose Cabezas/Getty Images)

Missing home

Balompié's owner, Amadeo Gonzalez, had a different story. Gonzalez came to the US in 1974 from El Salvador's Metapán – an agricultural region close to the Guatemalan border – and spent some time studying architecture at San Francisco City College before learning the ins and outs of the restaurant trade and opening Balompié Cafe. Originally, Gonzalez served up American-style soups and sandwiches, creating the illusion of a steady clientele by bringing in Salvadoran friends from his local football team to dine on free coffee and bread. But he soon realised many of them were missing the comfort foods of home.

Pupusas, in particular, were something he remembered his grandma making from scratch, beginning at 05:00 each morning, since Gonzalez's family didn't have money to go out to eat. His friends had similar memories, too. Soon, Gonzalez began adding traditional pupusa combinations to his menu, including cheese and loroco, which he imported from Metapán.

“Amadeo was one of the first business owners in San Francisco who had a license to import loroco and would actually fly down to El Salvador and pick it by hand,” Figueroa said. “But it all became too difficult – one bad flower and US Customs would toss the entire batch – so now we purchase frozen loroco at a local market.”

(Credit: Daniel Kavanaugh)

Not only are they a satisfying meal, but for anyone who grew up in El Salvador, pupusas are our roots, and they taste like home,” Figueroa said.

(Credit: Daniel Kavanaugh)

A pupusa love affair

Once Gonzalez realised he'd found a steady clientele for his pupusas, he decided to expand his menu – concocting flavourful combos like a pupusa stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and carrots, and the Mexicana y Queso, with pork mince, jalapenos and cheese. It's this ingenuity that's kept Balompié's business afloat in changing times, while still catering to a bevy of loyal customers.

Gonzalez first met Figueroa 11 years ago, while attending a birthday party for her mother, one of Balompié's loyal customers. He noticed Figueroa immediately. “Amadeo asked me on a date and I said yes,” she said, “and when I was leaving to meet him my mother asked, ‘So, you're going out with the owner of Balompié?’. I had no idea who he was!”

Now, the married couple share a nine-year-old son, not to mention a love of pupusas, a dish that Figueroa rediscovered through her husband's business, and a reconnection with Salvadoran culture. “It's funny,” she said, “but these days, it makes me proud to give people a taste of my heritage and show them how to eat pupusas.”

(Text by Laura Kiniry; video and images by Daniel Kavanaugh)

This article is part of a special ‘Immigrant Edition’ of Soul Food, a BBC Travel series that connects you with cherished memories through comfort foods from around the world.