The enticing bowl of salsa sitting alongside the basket of chips at your favorite Mexican restaurant has a history far more fascinating than you might imagine.
Salsa Means "Sauce"
Salsas include various cooked or raw sauces inspired by the basic tomato, chile pepper and spice concoctions known to have existed since the ancient civilizations of South and Central America.
- Europeans stumbled upon the lively sauces of the New World in the early 16th century. Tomatoes, chili peppers and the various dishes and condiments based on these ingredients were initially encountered by the Spanish conquistadors in village markets. Indigenous Americans had access to a range of exciting flavors unknown to most Europeans at the time.
- Salsa was probably enjoyed with just about everything, much as it is today. One shocking historical account describes Aztecs awaiting the conquistadors with pots of boiling chilies, tomatoes and onions in anticipation of transforming the Spaniards from invading force to main course!
Salsa has come a long way since the 1500's, but the basic flavors are essentially unchanged.
- Primary ingredients include tomatoes, tomatillos, chile peppers, sweet peppers, onions and seasonings.
- Exploring all the salsas in the grocery store may seem like a daunting task, and when you're planning to make salsa at home, the choices are nearly endless.
- The great variety of chile peppers alone guarantees a vast range of salsa flavors, and once ingredients like smoked peppers, herbs, fruits, nopales, seeds, beans, corn and even seafood come into play, possibilities abound.
- Avocado-based guacamole and distinctive, rich mole can also be included in the salsa category.
Favorite fresh salsa recipes:
In the United States salsa is generally thought of as a chunky, fresh mixture based on chopped tomatoes. In Mexico, salsa varies from region to region depending on sub-cultures and the availability of fresh ingredients. Traditionally, salsa may be prepared using uncooked ingredients, ingredients that have been roasted or smoked, or a combination of the two. While many salsas tend to be a little spicy, the heat levels range from cool and refreshing to mouth-searing and tear-inducing. One of the greatest culinary aspects of salsa is its extraordinary versatility.
Favorite cooked salsa recipes:
Not Just for Chips
With so many types of salsa to try, having them with every part of the meal is easy.
- Start with a fruit salsa and cinnamon chips for breakfast--or a side of your favorite salsa with huevos rancheros or a breakfast burrito. (Green salsa is great with scrambled eggs.)
- For lunch, serve a big bowl of fresh guacamole and a side of salsa fresca for dipping corn chips and fresh vegetables.
- At dinner, top burritos, tacos and enchiladas with chunky tomato salsas or the smooth, smoky type. Spice things up with a dash of hot habanero sauce. Finish with a fragrant, fruity mango mixture.
Of course, salsas are not just for Mexican food. Experiment with various flavor combinations on grilled meats and fish. The complex, sophisticated flavors of mole sauces can transform almost any meal into an elegant fiesta.