How 'SalviSoul,' a Salvadoran cookbook, came together Karla Tatiana Vasquez's search for a favorite family recipe became a cookbook documenting the food and culture of El Salvador.

How 'SalviSoul,' first Salvadoran cookbook from a major U.S. publisher, came together

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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'd 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, and it's out tomorrow. 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 through the blender, we strain it and then we sweeten it.

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



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 the 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.


MARTÍNEZ: I'm so sorry. 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.


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.


VASQUEZ: 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. 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 and 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 the sazon 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 on to.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, I'm anxious for...



MARTÍNEZ: ...For horchata.

VASQUEZ: I know, I know, I know.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm bouncing up and down now.

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


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.


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