Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Holy Week/Easter (varies):  Also called Semana Santa in Spanish. Holy Week is the week prior to Easter and is celebrated with far more vigor than most places in the US.  Churches will hold special Semana Santa services throughout the week, highlighting and retelling the story of the crucifixion.  Salvadorans also enjoy chocolate bunnies, coloring everything in pastel colors, and Easter egg hunts as well.  There are certain foods that are served around this time, like dried fish with eggs, different kinds of candies made from mangoes and plums with honey, as well as a sweet bread called torreja.  Processions are common, and one tradition that some cities do is to lay down a carpet of sawdust with brightly colored flowers to decorate the streets. 

Labor Day (May 1):  This day is used to celebrate the worker and is also used to discuss the state of labor and labor issues at hand.  Many cities hold parades on this day, and many people use this day as a means of protesting different labor issues, such as low wages and rising costs of goods.

The Day of the Cross (May 3): This holiday is a mix of Catholicism and indigenous believes.  People place a cross made of the jiote tree in the courtyard and place fruits underneath it, mainly seasonal ones like mangoes, bananas, and cashews (I wanted to try cashews when I went to Brazil, but because it was early spring, and I was in the south of Brazil, it wasn’t in season).  People will pray before this highly decorated cross and eat the fruit afterwards.  The Spanish tradition celebrates St. Helena’s discovery of the Cross of Christ, and the Indian tradition is a celebration of Mother Earth and the god of skinning, Xipe Totec. 

Mother’s Day (May 10):  While Mother’s Day in the US changes every year (it’s the second Sunday in May), in El Salvador, it’s a fixed date.  Mothers there are held in higher esteem than what I feel they are in the US sometimes.  In El Salvador, they are the glue that holds families together and are often the ones taking care of running the family.  People will often take a day or two before or after Mother’s Day to travel to see their mothers and shower them with treating them to a meal out, flowers, jewelry, etc. 

Father’s Day (June 17): Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is celebrated on the same day every year.  And without saying so, Father’s Day is treated in the same manner, with treating your father with gifts and doing thoughtful things for him. 

August Festivals (August 1-7): This weeklong festival is in honor of San Salvador’s patron saint, Jesus Christ.  (The name of the country El Salvador literally means “the savior.”)  Primarily held in the capital of San Salvador, a variety of events fill the week including parades, music festivals, fireworks displays, street fests, etc. Many people will have at least half the week off from work and will head to the beaches or mountains to find some R&R. 

Independence Day (September 15):  This marks the day that El Salvador declared its independence from Spain.  Town and cities across the country celebrate with parades and fireworks displays.  School marching bands play patriotic songs, and cultural and historical displays decorate the towns.  The day always ends with a huge fireworks display. 

Day of the Children (October 1): This day is aimed at celebrating children. On this day, towns and cities will have events for children for parents to take their children to. 

Day of the Race (October 12):  Held on the same day that Americans celebrate Columbus Day, many Hispanic countries do not necessarily celebrate Columbus’ landing in the Caribbean.  Because Columbus wasn’t really the most gracious of guests, it left somewhat of a bad taste in the mouths of many of these countries.  So, they changed it to “Day of the Race” (or “Dia de la Raza” in Spanish) to celebrate their Hispanic heritage.  Many parades and cultural festivals are held on this day.

Day of the Dead (November 2):  This holiday is celebrated throughout the Hispanosphere. It’s a holiday to celebrate those who have passed on.  People often visit the graves of loved ones, pray, and lay wreathes and flowers. Sometimes they use fragrant flowers and branches to make it smell good. A popular food at this time is tamales.

National Festival of Pupusa (November 7-13):  This is the national dish.  In fact, we’re making this when I cook Salvadoran food this weekend.  It’s like a thick corn tortilla filled with cheese, refried beans, and sometimes shredded pork and then fried and served with a side of curtido, a Salvadoran cross between sauerkraut and Korean kimchi. There are pupusa eating competitions and awards to those who dedicate their lives to making pupusas.  In fact in 2007, many Salvadorans got together to make the world’s largest pupusa and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records – it was large enough to feed more than 5000 people. 

Queen of the Peace Day (November 21):  Queen of the Peace is the patron saint of El Salvador.  Huge festivals take place, rivaling that of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  The largest celebrations are held in San Miguel.  Music is such an integral part of this festival that you can find up to 45 bands performing throughout the celebration. 

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day (December 24-25):  As a primarily Christian country, Christmas is no doubt the largest holiday of the year.  Roasted turkey, chicken and a variety of sides, desserts, and alcohol are commonly found at Christmas dinners.  Fireworks are also popular as well as singing and dancing. In El Salvador, people generally celebrate on Christmas Eve with family and friends and place gifts around a decorated Christmas tree and nativity scenes (which are a must). 

New Year’s Eve (December 31):  Like other countries, New Year’s Eve is celebrated by large parties and festivals, and people turn the streets into a giant party atmosphere. Salvadorans count the minutes down with the rest of the world and at the stroke of midnight, fireworks displays are set off, and the party continues.  Food, alcohol, music, and dancing last until the early hours of the morning. 

Up next:  art and literature

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Ok, I’m back. Well, I would’ve been right on schedule had I known my doctor was going to cancel my surgery in lieu of getting my thyroid back to normal.  Sheesh, this is getting to be too much drama for me. I think what I need is some food from El Salvador.

El Salvador is the smallest country in the Central American isthmus on the Pacific Ocean side. In fact, it’s the only country in Central America that doesn’t touch the Atlantic (just like how Belize is the only one that doesn’t touch the Pacific).  It’s surrounded by Guatemala and Honduras.  El Salvador is plagued with frequent and disastrous earthquakes, along with having over twenty volcanoes, some of which are still active – such wonderful gifts from being on the Ring of Fire. It also has over 300 rivers, the most important of which is the Rio Lempa. They have a definite rainy and dry season, even though they call their rainy season winter, which is actually from May to October.  (I wish it just rained during winter here.)  Hurricanes are also a threat to the country, as well as other extreme weather like El Niño, La Niña and droughts. El Salvador is also a country with a rich biodiversity because of its tropical climate. They’re known for being home to several species of sea turtles.

The capital city is San Salvador.  It’s not only the largest city with about 2.4 million people in the metro area, but it’s also vital as the government, culture, educational, and economic center. It’s been the host of several international and pan-American sports competitions.  In almost every sense, San Salvador is a modern city and tourist attraction with museums, parks, shopping, excellent restaurants, and cultural arts.

The original inhabitants were the Pipil people, who spoke Nahuatl. It’s also believed that the Mayans may have also been in the area as well, since El Salvador lies on the edge of their civilization.  El Salvador wasn’t able to escape the same smallpox epidemic that his other areas of the Caribbean, Central, and South America when the Spaniards made their entrance.  The Spanish practically lost their minds over the gold found in Mexico and Guatemala, but when they got to the Pipil lands, they were sorely dismayed at the lack of gold. However, the area had great soil from the volcanic lands. So, they kept it anyway. There were many battles fought between the Pipils and the Spanish, ones in which the Pipil didn’t fare so well. Finally, Salvadorans banded together and declared their independence from Spain.  Soon after that, they joined Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to create the Federal Republic of Central America. It only lasted 20 years until it dissolved, and El Salvador became it’s own independent country until it joined the Greater Republic of Central America, along with Honduras and Nicaragua. It dissolved after two years, and El Salvador once again became it’s own independent country. The country turned its focus on coffee production as its main means of economic growth.  The 20th century brought along a string of political uprisings and coup d’états.  There have been many economic reforms in the 1990s and other social reforms aimed at bettering the state of the union.  Crime remains a prevalent problem throughout the country. 

The economy in this country has had its ups and downs.  In fact, like Ecuador, El Salvador adapted the US Dollar as its currency to stabilize their economy.  Natural disasters have always had a negative impact on their economy as they struggle to rebuild.  El Salvador has often been considered a mono-export country, meaning one that pretty much relies on one product.  It used to be indigo but later switched to coffee. Inflation is fairly steady although still one of the lowest in the region.  And even at that, it still has the third largest economy in Central America.  They are seeing growth, and like other Central American and Caribbean countries, ecotourism is one contribution.  Remittances from abroad – when people move to another country for employment and send part of the money home – are another contribution, as well as free-trade agreements.

Look at the size of those baskets -- this has GOT to be back-breaking work.
The vast majority of Salvadorans identify themselves as Christians – Roman Catholics as the primary denomination, followed by Protestantism.  The next most common belief is non-belief: this includes people who are atheist, agnostic, or people who believe in some sort of god but doesn’t have a religion.  There are other religions represented in El Salvador but with much smaller followings.

Spanish is the most widely-spoken language in El Salvador.  Other indigenous languages that are spoken by a small population are Q’eqchi’ (a language spoken by indigenous people from Guetemalan and Belizian who were living in El Salvador), Nawat, and Maya, although these speakers also speak Spanish as well.  Common foreign languages that are learned in school are French, Dutch, German, and English.  And since WWII, there are also small Japanese and Taiwanese communities as well. 

There are a few famous people of Salvadoran descent.  Christy Turlington, model for Calvin Klein, Maybelline, and Versace is half-Salvadoran.  Writer and artist Consuelo de Saint Exupéry is from El Salvador; she married French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of one of my favorite books, The Little Prince.  And unfortunately, the street gang MS-13 that is based in Los Angeles, San Francisco and many other cities across the US, Canada, Mexico, and Central America is made up of ex-pat Salvadorans. But on the other hand, it’s one of the few countries that is experiencing reforestation of its tropical rain forests.  It does host one UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a place called Joya de Ceren.  The entire site was covered in ashes after a volcanic explosion and has been called the “Pompeii of the Americas.”  It makes you wonder perhaps how many other things that have been buries under volcanic ash that we haven’t discovered yet.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Today is a lot of things. First, today is the Superbowl, the championship football game between the winners of the AFC and the NFC conferences.  This year, it is between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.  I personally don’t have any huge preference either way. I think my husband is leaning towards the Seahawks, but a lot of people in Indiana are rooting for Denver just because Peyton Manning is on the team.  My prediction is that the team with the most points at the end of the game will win.  Today is also Groundhog’s Day.  It’s a weird holiday, where in the state of Pennsylvania, they have a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil.  If he comes out of his hole and it’s cloudy, then spring will come early.  If he emerges on a sunny day and sees his shadow, then he’ll climb back in his hole, and there will be six more weeks of winter. Apparently, we’re getting more winter. Yeah. Whoop. Dee. Doo. 

Sorry New York, these are better than bagels. I can't wait to have one for breakfast. 
But in an effort to not think about that, I’m cooking food from Egypt, a warm weather country. The first thing I’m starting on is the bread – for this, I chose semit.  It’s like a bread ring topped with sesame seeds. First, I dissolved my yeast in warm water, adding in warm milk with salt and sugar. Then I poured it in the middle of my flour and let it sit before kneading it until it’s smooth.  After it sits for a while, I kneaded it again on my dough mat – and let it sit more.  Then I tore a piece off about the size of an egg and rolled it into a rope and looped it around to make a ring.  After I made about 15 rings, I brushed the tops with a beaten egg and dipped the tops in a bowl of sesame seeds.  They almost look like bagels at this time. At this time, it rests again while I put a pan of water on the bottom rack in my oven until it gets hot. Then it’s time to put the baking sheet of semit into the oven for 15 minutes at 425ºF. I really liked these, and I think the general consensus was that this was the best part of the meal.  It was like a soft bagel.  I have some honey-nut cream cheese that would go nicely with it. 

So, so good. The perfect cold weather comfort food. I'm making this again.
The main meal is koshari.  It’s pretty much considered the national dish.  I cooked the lentils until they were tender, and cooked the rice until it was done, as well as cooked the orzo until it was soft as well.  Once all three of these were done, I placed them in a large pot.  I fried the onions until they were browned and put them with the oil into the rice-orzo-lentil mix.  I topped with tomato sauce and chili powder and mixed everything together until it was mixed thoroughly.  This was really good. Even though I think I was supposed to put the onions, tomato sauce, and chili powder on top of the rice-orzo-lentil mix.  Oh, well. It was easier to mix everything in one big pot. But I loved the subtleness of all the flavors together. Almost like a meatless jambalaya of sorts.  And if it were just me, I'd make it a whole lot spicier. 

Seriously, how do you go wrong with this?

I made the salata arabieh to go with this.  It was pretty easy: I mixed chopped cherry tomatoes, baby cucumbers, onions, garlic, red pepper, green pepper, mint flakes, parsley flakes, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, and I topped this with feta cheese (even though I can’t remember if feta cheese was originally in this recipe or not. I might have combined two difference recipes).  I’ve made something similar for past countries, but this one had added mint that I liked.  

This did not disappoint in the least. 
I liked this meal, especially the koshari. No wonder it’s considered the national dish. And THAT was really good. My husband and I talked about making this again but with some added Andouille sausage. (He’s such a carnivore, but I think that would be good.)  I was so excited about this meal, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.  I wish things would get better in Egypt so that I felt more comfortable with visiting there.  Perhaps by the time one of my books sell, and I save up the money, it’ll be ok to go.  And that’ll be years and years from now. But until then, I can enjoy their food.  

**And on a side note, I decided I’ll have to delay the next installment of my blog. Because I would be cooking food from El Salvador just a day after I get out of the hospital for an upcoming surgery, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be up for cooking. So, I’ll start posting again about a week after that. 

Up next: El Salvador


The ancient Egyptians attributed the invention of music to Hathor, which Osiris used to try to civilize the people on earth. Egyptians tended to use a variety of percussion instruments, string instruments (including lyres, lutes, and harps), and woodwind instruments (including flutes including one called the ney, recorders, and double clarinets). 

Arabic music consists of maqamats, which are like melodic modes that are also the basis of improvisation, showing the pitches, patterns, and the particular developments for a certain piece of music. To me, these are similar to Indian ragas, although I’m not sure how they might be different. I’d definitely have to do more in-depth research on that. Ordinarily, the most common types of these modes most Egyptian music is written is based on the Phrygian dominant scale, Phrygian scale, double harmonic scale (also called the Arabic scale), or the Lydian scale. 

Egyptian music served many functions.  It was a way to bring social and class issues to the table in a subtle way.  And both Muslim and Coptic music is important to the development of Egyptian music as well.  The music of Lower Egypt (the part closer to the Mediterranean) and Upper Egypt (farther south, including Nubia) have their own varieties of style and instrumentation. As Egypt moved into the late 19th and on into the 20th century, influences from European music took hold as well as Egypt’s influences on European music, including Giuseppe Verdi’s Egyptian-themed opera Aida.

Dancing in Egypt was extremely important and all social classes used dance as a means of expression.  Dance also had its functions, and there were many different kinds of dances used for different events. The lower classes had dance competitions and dance festivals, and the upper classes had harem dances and others. The main difference was that the upper classes were usually socially forbidden to dance in public – a joy that the lower classes enjoyed. There were dances where people danced by themselves, danced in pairs (usually female-female and male-male), or danced in a group.  Sometimes they used props, such as “castanets” and canes.

I did find some modern music on Spotify.  One musician I found is Ramy Gamal. He has a mix of traditional-sounding Arabic music mixed with a little bit of dance feel to a couple of the songs, but I thought most of the songs are slower. I like it, though. Khaled Salim is another who also has similar music.

However, if you are wanting more upbeat songs, I found Amr Diab’s album Rewind (Remix). I like this one much better. Even though, I think this is the original version of the song. But, oh well. 

Marwa Nasr is one of the few female musicians that I was able to find, although I’m sure there are probably a lot out there. The album I listened to was more of a pop/R&B style mixed with the traditional Arabic music. Nesma Mahgoub is another female musician of this same style.

I found the album Al Malek Howa Al Malek by Mohamed Mounir. He was an important musician who emerged in the early years, and has become an icon for all musicians. (The video posted is a newer song with images from the 2011 Revolution -- I wish I knew what the lyrics meant.) I’m kind of at a loss as to how to describe the music from this album. It certainly falls in the traditional style of music, with a lot of percussion as a basis to the music, various string instruments and woodwinds, and the vocals include the lead male voice along with female backup singers who sing in response. Many of the songs are fast-paced, but there are a few slower songs. This album, as well as the others, highlights the traditional styles of Arabic singing with trills and changes in inflection. One thing that separates traditional Middle Eastern and Indian music from European music is that they divide the intervals further than the traditional half-step taught in most classroom music. They often utilize quarter-steps that Western listeners find difficult to accept and not interpret the pitch as flat or sharp.  Sometimes, I think it’s difficult sometimes for Western listeners to open their minds to other musical concepts outside of what is normally taught.  I know it was difficult for me in the beginning, but now that I’m far more open to other culture’s music, it’s really a cool thing.

Up next: the food