Can a jar of spices evoke a place? To the millions of South Asians who’ve never heard of a thing called “curry powder,” much less use it in their food, maybe not. But some products make the case. Baltimore’s not Baltimore without Old Bay. Jamaican jerk demands jerk seasoning. And the streets of Mexico City just wouldn’t taste the same without Tajin. Which is to say: They’d be a lot less tasty without this ubiquitous and uniquely delicious chile mix.
Tajin (ta-HEEN) isn’t a spice mix per se. It’s a brand, but just like Kleenex and Xerox, its common use across Mexico has made it synonymous with salsa en polvo, literally salsa powder: a blend of roasty red chile, salt, and dehydrated lime juice that turns anything it touches into a spicy, tangy, brilliantly bracing wonder. Fruit hawkers on street corners sprinkle it liberally over drippingly ripe mango and melon. Home cooks may add a dash or two to any fruit or vegetable they pick up at the market. I’ve taken to dusting some on pineapple sorbet and rimming the tops of my morning michelada.
There are many brands of chile-lime powder out there, but our vote is for the classic.
All of which is to say: This stuff is good. And versatile. And in an upper-crust food-marketing world that’s out to prove how gluten and sugar and salt will each in turn kill you and your family and damn your immortal soul, save if you buy this one all-natural thing wrapped in three layers of non-compostable packaging, honest to goodness Tajin is here to remind you to appreciate the simple pleasures.
It shines brightest with fruit, good fruit that brings natural sweetness and some crisp refreshing crunch for extra credit. Mango is magic with salsa powder, but see also pineapple, watermelon, cucumber, and coconut. On the savory side, a plate of jicama cut into matchsticks and dusted with Tajin is a two-ingredient hors d’ouevre to serve year-round. Use it as a guacamole garnish or perk up your summer tomato sandwich. And don’t forget popcorn.
What’s the magic? Perhaps that there’s not much magic at all. Most salsa powder—Tajin included—is made with nothing more than chiles, salt, lime, and an anti-caking agent. Tajin’s chile is roasted and rich but bright, fiery but with an ephemeral burn. The salt’s abundant, and thus you should sprinkle with care, but it doesn’t overwhelm. And the dehydrated lime juice really does evoke fresh, aromatic citrus—not just crystalized citric acid—which makes for a concentrated hit of twang that’s had time to meld with the chile and won’t add liquid to whatever you’re seasoning.
If you’re enterprising, you could try making your own blend, picking your favorite chiles and adjusting ratios exactly to your tastes. You could try any of the myriad chile lime powders available on the market. Or you can just accept that Tajin is tops for a reason, a pure and good thing that makes good summer produce even better, a portable jar of kindness you can give yourself any time you stumble upon a fruit hawker with a mango to sell you.