Karla Tatiana Vasquez honors Salvadoran food in 'The SalviSoul Cookbook' : NPR's Book of the Day Years ago, Karla Tatiana Vasquez tried to search up a recipe for one of her favorite Salvadoran dishes, Salpicón Salvadoreño. The scarce results not only disappointed Vasquez, but created a new mission: to collect and preserve the recipes of the Salvadoran diaspora along with the stories of the women who've been passing them down for generations. In today's episode, NPR's A Martinez visits Vasquez's kitchen to discuss The SalviSoul Cookbook and the relationship between food, migration and trauma.

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'The SalviSoul Cookbook' celebrates Salvadoran food and the matriarchs who cook it

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ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Hey, It's NPR's BOOK OF THE DAY. I'm Andrew Limbong. The interview we've got for you today offers an inside peek into what it takes to get a cookbook made - what you have to prove and who you have to convince in order to get a publisher to bite. The book is called "The SalviSoul Cookbook" by Karla Tatiana Vasquez, who writes about Salvadoran food, which, for reasons she'll get into in the interview, isn't a hot commodity in the cookbook market. But in this interview with NPR's A Martínez, she says that she's doing all of this, jumping through all of these hoops, not for the blessings of a fancy-pants publisher, but to preserve the work of Salvadoran woman that cooked up these recipes. That's ahead.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: About a decade ago, Karla Tatiana Vasquez was trying to learn how to make her favorite dish called salpicon salvadoreno. It's a beef salad with radishes, mint, lime and salt. Karla was born in El Salvador, moved to Los Angeles as an infant and grew up eating Salvadoran food, which made her think it would be easy to find some recipes.

KARLA TATIANA VASQUEZ: I went to the internet, and I did a Google search. And I found two books, which I thought, immediately, I was like, wow, this is absurdo.

MARTÍNEZ: Absurd because there are more than 2.5 million Salvadorenos living in the U.S. Some fled a brutal civil war that lasted more than a decade into the 1990s. Others migrated to free themselves from extreme poverty in the aftermath of that war. It all got Karla thinking that she needed to do something to safeguard Salvadoran culture.

Her idea became "The SalviSoul Cookbook: Salvadoran Recipes And The Women Who Preserve Them." It's the first Salvadoran cookbook published by a major U.S. publisher. I went to visit her home kitchen in the Adams-Normandie neighborhood of Los Angeles, near downtown, where she was making a Salvadoran horchata drink.

VASQUEZ: I want to show you the seed that makes it Salvi horchata. This is the morro seed. It's very earthy. So first, we will toast this medley of seeds. And after they've been toasted, we put them to the blender. We strain it, and then we sweeten it.

MARTÍNEZ: Almost everything in life is better toasted, I think.

VASQUEZ: Yes.

MARTÍNEZ: Right? Yeah.

VASQUEZ: Oh, my goodness, yes.

MARTÍNEZ: As Karla was darting back and forth in her kitchen, I asked her how the book came together.

VASQUEZ: I thought, well, maybe if I start interviewing my grandmother, the other women in my family, I'll just have the recipes for myself. But what happened from there was friends who heard about my little project, they're like, oh, wow, you know, I've heard stories of my mom, and they're beautiful stories.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, when you put a call out for interviews, what kind of response did you get?

VASQUEZ: That response was wild. This was in 2017, and I had just left my job to pursue this. I wasn't expecting to get people calling me from, like, Minnesota, writing me emails from Paris. Like, there were people as close as Crenshaw District to as far away as people in Abu Dhabi.

MARTÍNEZ: "The SalviSoul Cookbook" has 80 recipes from 25 matriarchs, who not only instructed her how to make the food, but also shared lessons on life and love.

VASQUEZ: The way that I absorbed the culture was through the women in my family. And they fed me. And so there was the food that nourished my physical form. And as I was at the table, these stories were nourishing the part of my soul that longed to connect, that longed to belong. And so I just - I didn't feel like it was a complete meal without the stories, which was a hard selling point when I was pitching this.

MARTÍNEZ: Actually, tell us about that while you keep making the horchata because I want to try it.

VASQUEZ: Yes. OK, good. The journey to getting attention from agents and publishers was very discouraging. I had an agent who said, you know, Karla, I don't think the American public will know what this is. And I thought, you know, in retrospect, I can say, well, you know, I am the American public...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

VASQUEZ: ...And I know that I want this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARK)

MARTÍNEZ: I'm so sorry...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: ...I just stepped on your dog. I'm so sorry.

VASQUEZ: He won't forgive you, but he will hold it against you.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm so sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

VASQUEZ: Yeah. Then there were other agents I wrote to who said, well, Karla, like, who are you, you know? Do you have a restaurant? Do you have a very big Instagram page? That will kind of determine whether or not this book is kind of worthwhile. I had some Salvadorans themselves say, Karla, don't bother. Like, all we have is pupusas - all Americanos want are pupusas.

We know that we are from a small country. But the questions I have about this small country are the biggest questions I've ever had in my life. What is home? What is my identity? All of these things, I think, matter. And it's enough.

MARTÍNEZ: When you realized what this mission was and what - I mean, the legacy of Salvadoran women. That's a big load to carry. How do you carry it?

VASQUEZ: You cry a lot. No, for real, I think that there's so much trauma that has happened to the Salvadoran community. And I think that we've been so busy surviving, we haven't had a moment to assess what we've survived sometimes. And I think that's why these storytelling sessions happen at the table. It's the time where immigrant parents can maybe process a little morsel of the trauma. And I think when you have a plate of food in front of you at the table, it's a promise of satisfaction. And I think that that's what we're all longing for is satisfaction, safety, dignity.

MARTÍNEZ: Let me ask you this, though, because - so the stories that are in this book and the recipes, the stories of these women are legitimate stories. Does having a big publisher put them in a book with their imprint add legitimacy to them?

VASQUEZ: I think, for me, it has never been about the validation. And if I waited for that, this book would have never been finished. And so for me, it was about, I need to document this. I need to make sure that 10, 20 years from now, when someone is asking questions about, hey, what's the cuisine look like based on the last 20 years? They can have this document, and it will add some more nuance - right? - as far as the culture of our city.

And it's not about accepting. It's about holding on to this sauzon that the women have cared for. It's about making sure that what costs a lot to learn isn't forgotten. And so that's why having a partner in, you know, my publisher matters. People aren't going to accept us. People will accept us. That's honestly their problem. My problem is to make sure that what I was taught, what I was given is cared for, for the next generation to hold onto.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now I'm anxious for...

VASQUEZ: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: ...For horchata.

VASQUEZ: I know. I know. I know.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm bouncing up and down now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID SPLASHING)

VASQUEZ: I know. OK. Let me put it in here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID POURING)

MARTÍNEZ: That is Karla Tatiana Vasquez. The book is called "The SalviSoul Cookbook: Salvadoran Recipes And The Women Who Preserve Them." Karla, thank you very much for inviting us into your kitchen.

VASQUEZ: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTAS A FELICE SONG, "EL ZOPE")

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