I had my first sip of coffee at about 5 years old, maybe even younger. Whenever I tell people that, I usually get the same reaction. Eyes wide open as they exclaim, “What?!” 

The ones who get it, get it.

My mother migrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1992 in search of a better life after having lived through the civil war. Naturally, as the first-born of three, I am the most connected to my Salvadoran heritage. I’ve traveled three times to the motherland to visit my family, and I know I’m at home when I get a whiff of fresh brewed coffee, a staple in just about every Salvadoran household.

Catherine Lima and her great aunt

With the Los Angeles weather beginning to cool down and the holidays approaching, I am looking forward to dipping my mom’s fresh-baked quesadillas into my warm cup of coffee. They are not to be confused with Mexican quesadillas, which are primarily made with tortilla and queso. Salvadoran quesadillas are essentially cheesecakes with a combination of different flavors such as cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, cream, and (you guessed it) cheese. Sometimes they are topped off with sesame seeds to add a little extra texture.

Another dish I like to accompany with my coffee is a warm tamal de gallina wrapped in plantain leaves and a piece of pan francés, which is like a bolillo. Every Thanksgiving, my brothers and I stand in line for about an hour to buy what we consider the best pan  francés in LA at the Pacific French Bakery. (Yes, we usually wait an hour. It’s really that good!) While the tamales are cooking, we brew some coffee and dip our pan into it just to keep our stomachs busy in the meantime.

My mother picked up her cooking skills from her tía Lola, may she rest in peace, who made the best tamales. The last time I ever had one of her tamales I had the misfortune of it slipping off my plate. I was devastated. She was a very important figure in my upbringing as she taught me many life lessons, such as humility and gratitude. Whenever I’d cry about something materialistic, she’d remind me that I had things that children back in El Salvador could only dream of having, like food and clothes. There was always a sense of calmness when she was in the room.

Equally important to my upbringing is my grandfather, tía Lola’s younger brother, who I am fortunate to still have in my life. At 82 years old, he is still working his lands back in Usulután and loves to watch old Jean-Claude Van Damme films as he sways in his hammock sipping his coffee.

Catherine Lima and her grandfather

I was 13 the last time I visited my family, and I had the pleasure of eating my favorite foods daily, like our famous pupusas. Needless to say, for years I couldn’t stand eating pupusas. Just the sight of them made my stomach swirl. Since I overindulged pupusas for three weeks straight, the taste became too predictable. My taste palette yearned for new and surprising flavors, especially sweets. Of course, I will never turn down a pupusa if my mom makes my favorite kind – loroco con queso. 

However, one meal I just could not ever give up is platanos fritos con frijoles y crema. If I could choose one meal to eat every day for the rest of my life it would be just that with my cafecito to wash it down. Yes, I know that I’m addicted to coffee.

My favorite place that I went to during my last trip to El Salvador was El mundo feliz, which sadly came to a close in 2016. It was like a theme park and arcade put together. Kind of like John’s Incredible Pizza, but without the buffet. I collected so many tickets from playing the games, but I didn’t trade them in for a prize. Instead, I brought them back home as a souvenir.

I am definitely long overdue for another visit to El Salvador. I just can’t wait to be on that airplane looking down at the tops of palm trees and the waves of the Pacific Ocean splashing onto the shore.  

Catherine Lima was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. She is her mother's first-born daughter and will be the first in her family to graduate from a university. Her mother migrated to the United...