Writer Karla Vasquez strives to preserve Salvadoran food culture in L.A.

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Food writer Karla Vasquez (center) hosts discussion during a cooking workshop on Salvadoran quesadilla. Photo credit: Audrey Ngo

On a brisk, June morning in Silverlake, food writer Karla Vasquez stands in front of a shady backyard table, speaking to an audience of nine. 

She’s hosting her third Salvadoran cooking workshop. This time, it’s all about quesadilla: a sweet and savory cheesy bread, often topped with sesame seeds. 

A commonly used as an ingredient to make quesadilla in El Salvador is queso duro blando; a hard, salty cheese. Since imports are costly, many Los Angeles panaderias use Parmesan as a substitute.

A variety of cheeses used in food writer Karla Vasquez’s quesadilla cooking workshop. Photo credit: Audrey Ngo

But according to Vasquez, substitutions don’t take away from the authenticity of quesadilla made in L.A., where the largest group of ethnic Salvadorans reside, outside of El Salvador.

“Folks use an aged cheese that is affordable to them. And it doesn’t stop being true Salvadoran quesadilla,” Vasquez says.

Authenticity is a major theme in Vasquez’s workshops, where most of the attendees grew up with Salvi moms and grandmothers in the kitchen.

Workshop attendee, Jennifer Corletto, says she came to develop food traditions for her family.  

“I lost my mom when I was 15, so I didn’t really get that opportunity as an adult to be like, ‘O.K. Mom, now show me what to do,’” Corletto says. “I’m learning this so I can pass it off to my kids, ‘cause I’m a first-generation [American] and wouldn’t want that just to end with me.”


Workshop attendee Jennifer Corletto pours quesadilla batter mixed with the Salvadoran cheese, queso duro blando. Photo credit: Audrey Ngo

Sharing recipes with children is something that can get lost when moms have too much on their plate, Vasquez explains. 

“The kitchens are efficient spaces, so it’s not a time to be very romantic about ‘oh, we’re learning and this is a mother-daughter beautiful exchange.’ No... A lot of our grandmothers and mothers are too busy surviving,” Vasquez says.

Speaking of grandmothers…

In 2015, Vasquez decided to document Salvadoran recipes, starting with her own abuelita, Mama Lucy.

Mama Lucy was more than happy to oblige. And that first endeavor led to Karla’s cookbook SalviSoul, which is comprised of Salvadoran recipes and stories of the women behind those dishes. 

The book, which Vasquez is still shopping around to agents, will feature foods like rellenos de pacaya, a cheese-stuffed, edible flower bud, and torrejas, a syrupy treat with thick slices of cake or milk-bread accompanied by chilate, a hot, corn-based drink.

The recipes were contributed by 25 L.A. women who are originally from El Salvador.

But the soul in SalviSoul is most apparent in their various personal stories, which Vasquez documented to go along with each woman’s respective dish in the book.

Tujunga resident, Estela Alfaro is one of the women profiled in SalviSoul. She came to the U.S. in 1985, because of the Salvadoran civil war. 

One of Alfaro’s featured recipes in SalviSoul is mamaso, a handmade corn tortilla, hot from the griddle, blended into a ball with fresh cheese.

Alfaro’s whole face lights up when she talks about mamaso. And that has a lot to do with her abuelita, who raised Alfaro in their hometown of Canton La Labor for several years while her mother built a life for them here in the U.S.

For Alfaro, being able to enjoy freshly made mamaso after school was about stability. 

“Coming home to that--It just gave me the love and the reassurance that I had someone that really cared for me there,” Alfaro says.


Food writer Karla Vasquez (left) and SalviSoul contributor Estela Alfaro (right) pose together. Photo credit: Audrey Ngo

Alfaro had to rely a lot on childhood memories to piece together her own mamaso recipe.

And even though it might not be exactly the same as her abuelita’s, Alfaro says she still goes to great lengths to replicate the ingredients she first tasted in El Salvador. 

That means making the cheese for mamaso from scratch.

“You gotta place your hands on the milk and just start like slowly forming the cheese ball. Being able to do that from memory, it’s special,” Alfaro says.

Vasquez has seen Alfaro go through this cheese-making process first-hand and says that kind of attention to detail is authentically Salvi.

“This is the blood of this work,” Vasquez says. “It’s the legacy of the Salvadoran mom and what she’s done for her family.”

Take a listen down below.