Sorpresas are made of pottery and has often got the shape of an egg or fruit. You can lift the top off and under it you have the “surprise”, there are tiny figures under the top often showing rural scenes like women washing, weaving or cooking. Sorpresas are made in the village Ilobasco. The ones you see on the picture are on display in Museo Nacional de Antropología David J Guzmán.
Another souvenir is colourful painted wooden things like crosses, key rings, napkin holders and boxes. My souvenir from El Salvador is a round wooden painting to put on the wall. I bought it for 15 dollars (June 2009) at Diconte-Axul in Ataco.
You will also find indigo dyed clothing, pottery, hammocks and much more in the souvenir shops.
What to buy: A Salvadoran-style tamal is essentially a little block of soggy corn jello filled with a green bean or two, some undercooked chucks of potato, and a chicken bone. Real appetizing, no? Prior to the time I spend living in El Salvador, I was only familiar with the firmer, drier (and, in my opinion, superior) Mexican version of the tamal. Eventually, I reached a point where I could finish and even enjoy a Salvadoran tamal – an important accomplishment since tamales are the celebratory food of choice in many Salvadoran households – but I would never put them on a list of my favorite Salvadoran foods.
Like many small countries, El Salvador has relatively few traditions that it can claim as being uniquely its own (and not just generically Latin American or Central American). Although it's most famous sons and daughters are largely unknown outside the country’s borders, El Salvador does have one peg that it can hang its hat on – the pupusa. It's true that you can find pupusas elsewhere in Central America (and also in many US cities, now that the population of Salvadorans who reside in the US exceeds two million), but you’ll almost always find them referred to as "pupusas salvadoreñas" because the pupusa is generally recognized as one of the relatively few cultural inventions that is 100% Salvadoran (although some people do suggest that this culinary innovation actually originated in Honduras).
So, you ask, what exactly is a pupusa? Basically, a pupusa is a corn tortilla stuffed with some combination of beans, white cheese, and/or "chicharrón" (which is essentially ground pig fat), cooked on a lard-splattered griddle, and served with a watery tomato sauce and "curtido" (pickled cabbage). No culinary masterpiece, but filling and tasty nonetheless.
What to buy: Where can you find some pupusas? In a pupusería, of course. How can you find one of those? Well, it's about as difficult to find a pupusería in El Salvador as it is to find a freckle on an Irishman – they're everywhere. Indeed, if a community has only one commercial establishment, chances are that it's a pupusería.
So, that's it then? Not quite. Like any national dish, there are endless varieties of the pupusa. The town of Olocuilta, between San Salvador and the airport, is famous for removing corn from the equation and making their pupusas from rice instead. Although many people prefer rice pupusas to their corn cousins, I find the Olocuilta-style concoction too rubbery for my tastes.
More excitingly, some enterprising Salvadorans with the capacity to think outside the box (or in this case, the bean-cheese-chicharrón triangle) fill their pupusas with all sorts of non-traditional ingredients. "Ayote" (a local variety of squash) and "loroco" (a bitter little flower bud) both find there way into pupusas at many pupuserías. More exotic fillings include chicken, fish, shrimp, crab, pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, and spinach. The curtido itself can also get jazzed up with the addition of carrots, onions, chili peppers, oregano, cauliflower, beets, and (in the San Miguel area) even mayonnaise.
So, where's a good place to get some good pupusas? I recommend Pupusería Adriana in Ahuachapán (located in front of the park that’s nearest the bus terminal) for their wide variety of ingredients, and the pupuserías found along the Tourist Dock in Puerto El Triunfo for their shrimp pupusas.
Lastly, it might come in handy to know that the word "pupusa" is also used to refer to the female genitalia. So, it's ok to tell the lady at the pupusería that you like pupusas (me gustan las pupusas), but you shouldn't tell her that you like “her” pupusa (me gusta su pupusa).
What to pay: When I arrived in El Salvador in June 2001, it was easy to find a pupusa for 1 colon (11.43 cents) in most small towns and/or rural areas. Then, as dollarization progressed, the price of the pupusa suffered from some rounding inflation and jumped up to 12 cents. 12 cents per pupusa soon was replaced by 2 for a cora (i.e. "quarter" -- 25 cents). And then, the price increase that really broke the bank sent pupusa prices spiraling up to 15 cents each.
What to buy: Sorpresas are a roundish object such as an egg, apple or similar objects on a little base. Then when you lift the object up there are detailed, little scenes or figures of local daily life. There are ones with a lady at a well or a market scene or a little church scene. Also there are some adult orientated ones. A man and a woman naked together getting frisky. I guess the adult ones originated in Ilobasco which recieved some trouble from the local priest. Anyway the are good cheap (costs a couple of bucks) small souvenir that is identified with El Salvador.
What to buy: One common Salvadoran joke remarks that Salvadorans are so poor that they even eat their national flower (the flor de izote). Other flowers that appear in Salvadoran cuisine include loroco and pitos. Pitos are most frequently cooked either with beans or with eggs, and they are said to have sleep-inducing properties similar to the chemicals contained in turkey meat.
What to buy: Another fruit that I first encountered in El Salvador, the “Japanese cashew fruit” is also known, in Nicaragua, as the “manzana de agua” (water apple). It has a somewhat flowery taste. Worth a try if you happen to find any on sale.
What to buy: Another native fruit that might be unfamiliar to many travelers, the paterna can be consumed in a number of ways. The white fuzz that surrounds the seeds can be peeled off and eaten. I’m not sure how to describe the flavor, other than to say that it’s a fairly mild flavor as far as fruits are concerned. The seeds are sometimes thrown into soups, or they can be boiled and then eaten with a touch of lemon juice, some hot sauce, and a pinch of salt.
What to buy: The end of July might mean many things to many people in many places. Here in El Salvador, for me the end of July has special significance because I then know that the anona harvest is just around the corner. During each of the past three years, I've spent the better part of July pestering my friend Paty, who lives in the midst of some prime anona territory, asking her on a daily basis if the season's first anonas have ripened yet. Why? Because they're just so, so good. The mushy flesh (which can range be off-white or pale pink, depending on the variety of anona) found inside this irregular, pale green, grapefruit-sized little ball of ambrosia has the flavor and consistency of custard. If you travel through El Salvador in or around the month of August, do your taste buds a favor and hunt down some anonas in the market (where they shouldn't cost any more than $0.50 each). You'll know that they're ripe if they are already split open, as shown in the photo. If you can't find any ripe ones at the market, you can buy an unripe one and store it in a paper bag at room temperature for a couple of days.
What to buy: Most everyone knows what a cashew is, but perhaps not everyone knows that cashews come attached to a juicy, tasty fruit called the “marañón.” I certainly didn’t know that the marañón existed until I was sent to live in El Salvador. It’s not my favorite fruit, but it’s certainly worth a try, especially when made into a “fresco” (fruit juice-based drink). Be careful if you decide to just grab one and eat is, because the juice is said to stain. This particular marañón was photographed at the Joya de Cerén archeological site.
What to buy: One of the many fruits that I came across for the first time in El Salvador is the nance. Generally I'd rather eat dirt than nances – they smell like rotting flesh, and don’t taste much better – but they do serve as the base for a fairly decent moonshine. My friends in La Laguna gave me widely conflicting advice as to how long I should let the nance-and-molasses concoction sit and ferment. We ended up drinking mine after it had sat in a dark corner of my house for a couple of months. It didn't really seem to have much alcohol, but it did taste pretty good.
The central market in San Salvador known as the mercado cuartel is quite a busy place and can be somewhat dangerous so go to the Santa Tecla Market instead. You can find just about everything but still keep an eye on your wallet.
The shop keepers will ask you to stop by their stands to see what they have and will invite you to look without feeling shy "sin pena".
What to buy: Pick up a piñata for your next party- they're really nice and come in so many different styles. Don't forget to get the matching piñata stick. Last year I bought a Barney piñata and opted for the Pikachu stick to go with it. We had a blast filling it with candy and then breaking it at my birthday party. I was able to carry it on the plane without any trouble and since it wasn't filled it wasn't heavy. Another party favor to look for at the piñata stands are the "cascarones" or eggs filled with confetti. They are colorful real eggs that have been emptied of their contents and filled with paper confetti. The guests then sneak up on each other and crack them over each other's heads. My 4 year old nephew loved these.
What to pay: Now even the markets accept either colones or dollars but always ask to pay less anyway. It's a fun game for you and the shop keeper. Enjoy the experience.
Fernando Llort, one of El Salvador's most famous artists has a wonder gallery, restaurant and gift shop that I have visited on three occasions. The original pieces in the gallery range from US$100 to $3000. The prints run less than $100. I bought a framed print in the gift shop for about $47. There are also shirts, tablets, books and ceramic tiles available.
What to buy: Llort's original oils are very nice if that fits in your budget. I have purchased numerous framed prints and some nice ceramic tiles which I have used in recent remodels in my home.
What to pay: All price levels. Remember, US currency is the national standard now in El Salvador