The Mexican Salsa; ABC to bright as a native

I remember my first morning in Germany in 2019, when at the breakfast, my best friend Thimo’s father, took a small loaf of bread and asked me if in Mexico we do have “brötchen”. I saw the small loaf and the very first thing in my mind was “that’s a bolillo” (Mexican loaf bread) and it tasted much of the same. We were at the supermarket that same afternoon and I realized that the groceries I saw, didn’t vary quite much from Mexican markets: tomatoes, onion, garlic, coriander, some (pricy) avocados, mangoes, zucchini, green (unknown to me) chilis, canned beans, quark, and even in some places we can buy sour cream.

Photo by Roberto Michel (iStock)

Wait, Brötchen, cooked ham, mashing canned beans, dicing tomatoes, onion, coriander? You can make molletes with it. Roasting and mashing tomatoes, onion, garlic, and chilli? That’s a basic chunky salsa!. Grilling and blending tomatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, and chilli? A perfect salsa taquera (special salsa for tacos). “You can cook Mexican abroad and keep authentic!”, I thought.

On another trip, I was in Nairobi in 2020 I ventured out of my couch surfer’s house and found a small fruit and veggie store, where I saw some small chilis and felt back home. I gave the store-man a shilling and right there I bit the fruit. That was hot, that was as hot as back home. Coincidently, that same day I would visit a second couch surf family in Katani, in the suburbs of Nairobi. I entered her house, and my host Winnie cooked a whole banquet to share with me and her family. I brought out of my bag some tortillas, and as I already have proved that in Kenya, there are spicy chilis too. I started writing down to her the best way to make her own tacos, and very Mexican salsa.

Photo by Marco Castillo (iStock)

I have never had such revelations like that in the United States. The huge influence of American media has directly affected the image and interpretation of the food from my country. Big manufacturing plants and processed foods products might give a feeling of authenticity when you’re buying a can with a foreign name and a mascot wearing a huge sombrero but it’s not really authentic, just to have a rough idea, in fact, the most known processed spicy salsas all over the world, along with tabasco and tapatío, are not even Mexican owned they are American.

Most of the American interpretations for salsa are vinegary, sour, and with a flat body. There’s no chunks, there’s no seeds and there’s not feeling of having actual natural chilies. And don’t get me wrong, we Mexicans use these kind of processed salsas in our day to day, mostly on snacks, but they will never replace the chunky, fruity salsa hand made over our street tacos.

It comes to my mind the image some movies, where a drop of salsa, out of a bottle comes out with a devil’s face, or comedy shows, shaking salsa bottles over someone’s food to play a joke on them. As any Mexican will confirm, eating salsa is not about the masochistic burning feeling, is about glowing up our typical dishes. It is definitely part of a huge old anthropology and cultural, geographical factors.

The truth is, authentic Mexican salsas can be freshly replicated at home easily, with some basic ingredients used in the right way, no matter where you are in the world. The whole world consumes, onion, garlic, salt, and tomato, the rest is only having the correct technique, seasonings, and finding one kind of chili.

The anatomy of a good salsa.

Red or Green?

Despite what many people would think, green salsa isn’t less spicy than red salsa. I believe this is because of the perception that a red chili would be spicier than a green chili, but the color of the salsa has nothing to do with the color of the main chili — it’s the “vehicle” used for it.

While red salsas are the easiest to make as we have tomatoes all over the world, green salsas, are made with tomatillo.

Tomatillo
Photo from ourgardenworks

Many people who aren’t familiarized with tomatillos think they are only unripe tomatoes, but they’re a different fruit (just alike). Tomatillos and tomatoes are in fact distant relatives — they share the same biological families (Solanaceae) but different genres. Tomatillos are more related to fruits such as gooseberry and ground cherries. As shown in the picture, both gooseberries and tomatillos are covered by tiny film leaves. Tomatillos are found fresh in Mexico, and in some places in central and south America. In the USA and Europe sometimes they are sold in very pricy processed canned preserves.

In Mexico, we have a saying “a good Mexican fast food stand is made by their salsas”. Erick Gutierrez, the chef from the Mexican contemporary restaurant “Mahis” in Pachuca City, says that any good salsa must be well-rounded, as a good wine; it should have balance between spicy, sourness, sweetness, and smokiness. “I love spicy food, and spicy salsas”, he says. “I am not against that, I even enjoy that but, many times more than enhancing the flavor of the dishes, a very intense spice will cause it to fade.”

In front of my department complex, there’s a lady who will sell her food from 9am to 5pm every single day from Monday to Sunday. Despite what many Mexican purist chefs would say, she uses the secret SALSA ingredient of many Mexican grannies: Powdered chicken broth.

It is sold widely in the country and, even though it was supposed to be sold to prepare soup easily, in Mexico all mothers will sprinkle it into their preparations, including the salsas. It gives a slightly meaty taste, when using it, you must be quite careful because it is also (quite) salty, and it must be added just to rectify flavors and not in the first place before salt.

I remember since I was a child, my mom would bring the salsas to every potluck in family gatherings. She would just find the perfect pairing for the occasion. No matter if it’s a formal or casual gathering, she has a recipe. She follows her instinct and I have seen it my whole life. If there was an improvised meeting, she only opened the pantry and came with a combination that everyone liked. No recipes — she knew how to make it by heart.

As I previously said, and I have known my whole life recipes are huge, but when I reached a certain age in my teenage we would create and use our instincts to make our own salsas, and many of them have worked. Adding mango, deep frying ingredients, emulsifying ingredients with oil, and even with some strawberry jam for sweetness, the sky is the limit.

THE MAKINGS OF A GOOD SALSA

My unofficial classification of the main ingredients of salsa is the following:

The vehicle:

This is the accurate term I would use for the predominant ingredient of the salsa, the most common are tomatoes and tomatillos, but some salsas would use cooking oil or just water.

The must:

Garlic and onion. As in many cooking recipes, these bad boys always come together which will bring the soul to the salsa.

The main role:

The chili will give a special flavor to the salsa, which can be dried and/or fresh, but never powdered. The dried chilies must be rehydrated — they will turn the salsa into a warmer, smoky salsa. The fresh ones, on the other hand, are fruity with a sweet back-profile

Salt. That’s it. Just please use salt.

The frequently used:

Some recipes can use cilantro for herbal freshness. Cumin is used only in dry chili-based salsas

The forbidden:

An authentic Mexican salsa will never use powdered chilies, paprika, or black pepper. Please avoid processed tomato puree or tomato pastes.

THE BEGINNER SALSA MANUAL

We could create a whole recipe encyclopedia with thousands of salsas. Here I will explain two basic types to shine as a Mexican would. These are used to dress any kind of food, use your intuition, they can be spread on tacos, steaks, to dip some chips, and even in some stews to add more flavour to it.

Red salsas are the easiest to make abroad since tomatillos are rarely found out in the world. That’s why I am focusing on two red salsas for at-home chefs.

Salsa molcajeteada / salsa molka-hete-ada

Molcajete (the tool)
Photo by Emmanuel Espinoza (iStock)

This is a roasted chunky salsa, typically made with a molcajete, an ancient tool used to grind ingredients. The following recipe will make about enough salsa for 4 people.

Ingredients:

3 tomatoes

1/3 onion

1 big garlic clove

1 big fresh chili (or more depending on the willing spice level)

Salt to taste

Equipment:

Flat pan

Blender (Hand or regular)

Clamps

Preparation:

  • Place all of the ingredients (except the salt) in the flat pan without adding any kind of oil.
  • Move and turn them constantly with the clamps to roast all the sides of the ingredients.
  • When they look nicely roasted, with enough black spots but not in ashes, place them in the blender or the blending recipient and add the salt.
  • Don’t take any of the roasted skin of the chilies and tomatoes off.
  • Blend with 6 to 7 small pulses, it must look chunky but integrated.

Salsa taquera / salsa takera

A salsa taquera will be found on every taco stand all over the country. Different from the salsa molcajeteada, this is fully blended but not strained. The recipe will make 4 portions as well.

Ingredients:

3 tomatoes

1/3 onion

1 big garlic clove

2 to 3 dried chilies, depending on the size and spice level.

Salt to taste

1/2 pinch of cumin

Equipment:

Boiling pot

Any vessel for warm water

Blender (Hand or regular)

Preparation:

  • Place the tomatoes into the pot and bring them to boil until they’re cooked soft.
  • In a different bowl, add warm water and the chilies without stems, until they’re as soft like a thin plastic sheet, about 10 minutes Keep; the soaking water.
  • When the chilies are soft and the tomatoes cooked, put them into the blender (or the blending bowl if using a hand blender), and the rest of the ingredients.
  • Blend consistently and add some soaking water if is needed. It will look just a tiny tiny bit chunky and the consistency must be as thick as an aioli. Liquid but not watery.

Omar Moreno was born and raised in Aguascalientes, Mexico. His family comes from quite different origins. Her mom’s side, the center-north of Mexico, where the food tradition is about innovating due to the lack of natural resources as a result of being the arid zone of the country, and his dad’s side, the south of Mexico, where it’s all about generation to generation knowledge and ancient techniques. Omar has come to understand both ancient and upcoming techniques with criticism, opening his eyes and my mind to embrace innovative Mexican cuisine.

This article is the work of Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning 10-week Food Writing for Publication course participant, Omar Sánchez. Le Cordon Bleu is not responsible for the content, opinion, and view is that of the author.

To find more information on all Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning courses, visit our website at https://online.cordonbleu.edu/

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