In the World in Your Daily Life series, we explore the world behind common objects in our lives.
As I am typing this, I have a little container of salsa, came with some Mexican take-out food, sitting on my desk. Here in the West Coast of the United States, it’s a very common food item. I can buy one at a supermarket, and various fast-food places even come with a salsa bar.
I remember an exchange student from Japan calling it a tomato sauce. He had never seen one before he came to America (this was in the early 1990s). It is, however, relatively easy to find ingredients for making salsa at typical supermarkets in Japan if one knows how to make it (see below for how to make some great salsa!).
The word salsa simply means sauce in Spanish. For example, soy sauce is called salsa de soja. Any kind of sauce is a salsa as far as Spanish-speaking people are concerned.
What we call salsa usually refers to a kind of Mexican sauce or salad with a tomato base and is generally used as a condiment in Mexican or Tex-Mex cuisine.
The roots of this popular import from Mexico trace back to the ancient Inca Empire . The Incans lived in South America before the arrival of Europeans and had a vast, highly civilized empire. Their country spread along the Pacific side of the Andean mountains (today’s Peru, Bolivia, small parts of Argentina, and Chile). Tomatoes and chili peppers were native to Central and South America (Yes, Italians only began eating tomatoes after Christopher Columbus — imagine a pizza without tomatoes! Actually, pizza did not exist until probably around the 19th century). By the time the Spaniards arrived in Central America, the Aztecs were making salsa to flavor meat and fish.
In Mexico, there are several types of salsas (sauces) and they go with almost everything.
- Pico de gallo is perhaps the most familiar one to Americans. It is a mixture of fresh, chopped tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, onions, and chili peppers. (The supermarket varieties often use pre-heated tomato pastes.)
- Salsa verde (green sauce) is also commonly found in Mexican restaurants and is made of tomatillos instead of tomatoes.
- Salsa roja (red sauce) is more like what Americans call hot sauce.
- Salsa de chipotle is made with roasted chili peppers instead of fresh ones.
- Mole (the word means sauce in the Nahuatl language instead of Spanish) is a thick, dark-colored sauce used on meat dishes and are made of several types of chili peppers as well as spices, nuts, fruits, and even chocolate.
The use of salsa also differs between the U.S. and in Mexico. Since most Americans of non-Mexican origins tend to use salsa as a dip for tortilla or potato chips, manufacturers give their salsa a very thick consistency. In Mexico, it tends to be more watery.
How did all this become a staple in American households?
Often, foods come to the United States with immigrants. At first, they tend to keep their food within their own community — they might open a restaurant but usually is meant as a place where immigrants from their own country could enjoy the taste of their home.
The arrival of Mexican food to the U.S. follows this pattern. During the Mexican Revolution , which began in 1910, many refugees fled war-torn Mexico for their northern neighbor. As people immigrated from central and southern Mexico, their food also travelled to the U.S. First taquerias (restaurants serving tacos) opened in the 1920s in California .
The other stream of cuisine that was popularized in the U.S. is Tex-Mex . Strictly speaking, Tex-Mex is not a type of Mexican food (though many common Mexican ingredients are also found in Tex-Mex kitchens), but rather a fusion of Mexican, Native American, and Spanish cuisines. Perhaps the best-known Tex-Mex is chili con carne (and its vegetarian adaptations), which became a hit when it was brought from San Antonio, Texas to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. In Texas, the Tex-Mex was commonly referred to as Mexican food however.
Taco Bell, the first Mexican-inspired American fast-food chain, was created by Glen Bell, who originally wanted to start a hamburger joint like McDonald’s. Thinking that competition in the hamburger industry is becoming fierce, Mr. Bell (hence Taco Bell) created a menu based on Mexican food, and opened his first Downey, California restaurant in 1954.
The rest is history.
Is there a relation between salsa and the Latin American dance called salsa?
The dance originated in New York in the mid-20th century, influenced by the city’s Cuban-American and Puerto Rican immigrant communities. No one really knows for sure why the dance has come to be known as salsa. The first recorded mention of the word salsa in reference to the dance was 1975.
How to make pico de gallo
One day I improvised ingredients based on what I could find, and it became an instant hit with the crowd. Most of the ingredients are inexpensive to buy in much of the U.S., and if you have a garden you can grow them as well.
- 2 medium-to-large sized tomatoes
- 2 small-to-medium yellow onions
- 1 jalapeño or serrano pepper
- 2 sprigs of cilantro (more if you like it)
- 3 basil leaves
- 2 green onions or scallions
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Chop them all up finely and mix them well together in a glass bowl.
Do you have a favorite salsa? Unusual use for salsa? Use the comment section!