Special Sauce: Varieties of Mexican Salsa

By Hugo Ortega

Published on August 15, 2012

In Mexico, salsa is an endless journey. Every microclimate, every state, has its own ingredients, its own methods of making it. If you counted all the salsas in Mexico, I assure you there would be thousands. Yet there’s one thing most Mexicans would agree on: There’s no meal without salsa. It’s more than just a condiment for anointing tacos, drizzling into soups, and spooning onto eggs, grilled fish, and roast meats—salsa adds a sense of place to everything it touches. Growing up on the border of Puebla and Oaxaca, I would pick deep-red tomatillos and tiny pequin peppers; they both grew wild near my home. I’d char them on the comal and grind them in a molcajete, a mortar and pestle, along with onion and sea salt, to make the salsa that defined my childhood. So many salsas are improvised from the foods available locally. In coastal Oaxaca, the abundance of seafood has led to the creation of a pico de gallo salsa of tomatoes, onions, chiles, and cilantro that’s studded with shrimp. Sikil p’ak, a Mayan specialty of the Yucatan, features pan-toasted pumpkin seeds, available in abundance throughout the region, as the base for a rich salsa that’s as thick as a dip. And in the hot lowlands of Chiapas, peanuts, sesame seeds, guajillo chiles, and chiles de arbol are fried together and blended to make a lavish sauce. Other salsas, however, are so universally appealing that they’ve been adopted throughout Mexico, and beyond. Salsa verde, a refreshing blend of tomatillos, onion, jalapeños, garlic, and cilantro, and salsa roja, a potent jam of charred tomatoes and guajillo chiles, can be found at nearly every taqueria in Mexico City. But no matter the type, I enjoy salsa best the way that I believe it is intended to be eaten plain, on a fresh tortilla. —Hugo Ortega, chef-owner of Hugo’s Restaurant, Houston, Texas, and author of Street Food of Mexico (Bright Sky Press, 2012)

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