Salsa is the Spanish or Italian word for sauce. Today most salsas are used as condiments for a variety of different foods in the U.S., with Mexican or Southwestern heritage. Salsas today are also frequently paired with fried tortilla chips. Many varieties of salsa exist, from those salsas distinguished by ingredients to those that are fresh versus cooked to the variety of salsas from different countries. The word derives from the Latin word for salt or salty. Salsas from Mexico are the most common types used in the U.S.
I love how the word really derives from people wanting to literally spice up their bland food. Salsa are a great addition to any food for excitement. Although many people can not tolerate the heat with their food, I am a moderate in this respect despite my Mexican heritage. I like my snacks or anything I eat with my hands to have an inferno level of heat or Picante. This includes fruit, chips, nuts, vegetables, wings and meat on sticks. However, I like my proper meals at a medium heat level to enjoy all the spices in Mexican and other ethnic foods.
The most important quality of a salsa is its piquant flavor or how “hot” it is on a wide scale. The scale of pungency or spicy heat of a pepper is measured in Scoville which are heat units caused by the capsaicin in the peppers. The popularity of “hot” foods has expanded with the diversification of the U.S. population. Salsas now outsell ketchup and mayonnaise as the number one condiment.
The salsa rojo or red salsa typically consists of roasted tomatoes, chiles, onions garlic and lime juice. In a fresh ingredient form, the salsa is referred to as pico de gallo or rooster’s beak. The green version of salsa or salsa verde replaces the tomato for the tomatillo in the U.S. and Mexican versions. Italian versions of salsa use herbs. Black sauce or salsa negra is made with dried chiles and oil for a mixture that is pungent and flavorful. Salsa ranchera is typically a roasted salsa served warm in a molcajete. I enjoy many varieties of salsas typically for my tacos I like pico de gallo. For all other foods, I like the roasted variety of salsas. This is a personal preference. The most commonly sold salsas are the fresh ingredient variety.
Hot sauce is also a form of salsa in which the peppers are blended to a thick liquid form for a topping of a wide range of food. Although American and Mexican brands have been common in the marketplace since the turn of the 20th century, many Asian brands of hot sauce have become popular. Cholula and Valentina are my favorite over the counter hot sauces, although Sriracha is climbing up the ranking from me. My dad’s side of the family makes a wonderful guajillo hot sauce that just melts in your mouth the instant it touches your tongue.
Many varieties of salsa have existed in Mexico that uses a variety of ingredients from mango, pineapple, corn, squash, avocado and other fruits. In addition, many diverse peppers such as serrano, jalapeno, chipotle, habanero, guajillo, ancho, poblano and palla and many others are features in many salsas. There are many varieties of peppers invading the U.S. market such as the South Asian ghost pepper. The future of salsas is exciting as these new ingredients begin to become incorporated in the American cuisine.
Salsas are attributed originally to the Incas, Aztecs and Mayan people of the American continent. The Spanish explorers first encountered tomatoes the main ingredient in salsas to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan. The salsa was used by the Mexica to flavor meats and fish. The salsas were made using mortar and pestle called molcajete made from volcanic rock. Today most cooks use blenders although, many traditional chefs feel that the hand blending of ingredients with the molcajete provides the salsa with a rugged texture adding to the experience of eating it. I sometimes love the feeling of hand blending the ingredients with mortar and pestle. It feels as though I’m following the ancient tradition of indigenous women and keeping the spirit alive. However, the time constraints on modern people ensure that the blenders and food processors will never go out of style again. Every time we cook Mexican food we keep the tradition alive!
Salsa is a very healthy food when home made. It is high in magnesium, phosphorus and in vitamin C. It is also low in cholesterol and saturated fat. The store bought varieties of salsa can be high in sodium and some of the more Americanized versions of the traditional salsas frescas or rojas are high in sugar. This is why I can’t tolerate the American brands of salsas, they are sweet. Yuck! A good salsa roja or fresca is more savory. I only like the naturally sweet salsas made from mango, pineapple, etc…
Some of my favorite Mexican restaurants will bring a variety of salsas to the table to satisfy many different taste buds. At home, I usually have a store bought green salsa in the refrigerator at all times and make my own pico de gallo every few days.
As you can see there’s a lot to know about salsas. We keep an ancient tradition alive by eating them. They are healthy. They add excitement to bland food, and they are simple to make! Share some of your salsa recipes in the comments below. I look forward to seeing them!