Salsa: The Real Protagonist in Mexican Cuisine

A look at the condiment’s importance in the Mexican kitchen

We need to talk about the sauce in Mexico. Displayed front and center at every restaurant and street food stall, and replenished swiftly as if it were a bad omen to let them run dry, sauce reigns supreme in the Mexican kitchen.

Of the many things that encapsulate the heart and soul of Mexico, probably the most profound is its cuisine. And when talking about Mexican cuisine, one mustn’t forget where it comes from: the amalgamation of many races and cultures. The food is, without a doubt, the most reliable proof of that.

Food in Mexico is diverse. Dishes vary by region and every state has its own speciality that may feature ingredients or methods not found in other states.

However, the one constant that seems to unite all of Mexico is salsa.

One of the things that blew me away the most when I moved to Mexico was the quality, and selection, of its salsas. Proudly laid out next to the comal where masa is grilled away in all its forms — tortillas, quesadillas, gorditas, tlacoyos, and huaraches among others — the sauce is really what it’s all about. Like the meat and masa are vessels for what’s of real importance.

Apart from a few dishes like barbacoa — where the success of the dish relies on a complex process to perfectly cook the meat — a good sauce is the lifeblood of most Mexican dishes. A position held with unapologetic flavour, and spice, that slaps you right in the face.

“Mexico is the only country in the world with a national coat of arms that consecrates a feral act of gastronomy… A country that takes refuge in this emblem cannot be peaceful or have simple food.” — Juan Villoro, Mexican author and journalist

The sauces in Mexico seem to multiply with no end in sight. Sauces of all colours and consistencies exist to cater to every dish imaginable. Even the pickiest eaters have a handful they can count on to level up their food.

[sauces] They’re the rhyme and reason of dishes where the protein is really just an excuse to enjoy what is of real interest — Enrique Olvera, owner and chef of Pujol

Most commonly found are the “standards”, as we’ll call them: bright green salsa verde made from tomatillos and serranos, salsa roja with its deep red colour and trademark kick from chile de árbol, and pico de gallo for those who aren’t up for spice.

Next, come the less-prevalent “specialty” sauces: deep crimson red salsa de Morita (salsa macha) that tastes sweet and a little smoky, serrano-laden guacamole that’ll have you breaking out in a sweat (but not always), and a sauce or two putting the humble chile Ancho on show .

Sometimes you get treated and the sauce comes “molcajeteada”, that is, made in a Molcajete.

But who could possibly talk about Mexican sauces without mentioning the true summit of sauce? The most popular and widespread, whose delicate, labour-intensive process is outdone only by sheer flavour — mole.

Mole Poblano is undoubtedly the most popular, hailing from Puebla, but there are many moles: the seven different types from Oaxaca, Pipian moles made from pepitas and the less famous moles such as the pink mole from Taxco or one made from Walnuts.

Some believe, while almost impossible to prove, that salsas became so important back in the prehispanic era where Aztecs were known to engage in some casual cannibalism after sacrificing their fellow man to appease the Gods. What better way to forget where the meat you’re settling into came from than with sauce so good it should be a dish by itself?

While there’s no lack of evidence regarding cannibalism during prehispanic times, scholars strongly advise taking that theory with a grain of salt. It does, however, serve to confirm one theory.

Salsa is the real protagonist in Mexican cuisine.

In reality, salsas are more likely related to poverty and practicality rather than ritual. Strong sauces can preserve and ration meat (chilli and salt are preservatives) and mask any quality/flavour issues —some of the meat in Mexico is… questionable. Can the demand of Mexico City alone (22 million people) allow for sustainable practices?

Whatever the case, salsa also allows for the corn tortilla to be incorporated into the meal —and pretty much every meal is eaten with tortillas. Just slap some salsa on them to give them a life of their own. Not only is the tortilla a form of cutlery, but it also contributes to recycling — old tortillas into enchiladas, totopos, chilaquiles, migas and countless other dishes.

Whatever way you look at it, sauce plays a huge role in the Mexican kitchen. It kicks humble dishes up a notch and can make something as simple as a tortilla, tasty.

My food has improved a shit load since I started putting more effort into sauces and their application. I can cook simpler meals with fewer ingredients and still feel satisfied.

Mexico leaves its mark on everybody, perhaps most profoundly with its salsa.

So what are you supposed to do with this newly-acquired knowledge of salsa? Exactly what the rest of us did — eat. Try making the salsas below and when you do, or next time you find yourself eating Mexican food, take a moment to consider how much more you appreciate your condiments.

Recipes for five salsas

Salsa verde

  • 4–5 Tomatillos
  • 2 Serranos
  • 1/2 onion
  • Handful of Cilantro
  • Salt to taste (start with 1 tsp)
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 clove garlic (optional but recommended)

Char the tomatillos, serranos and onion in a pan or grill until lightly blackened all over.

Add everything except the salt and lime juice to a small pot and bring to a boil for 5 mins to soften everything.

Add everything to a blender with half the boiling liquid and blend until desired consistency. Add more water a little at a time to achieve the desired consistency.

Salsa roja

  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1/2 onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 guajillo chiles (optional but adds bulk, colour and depth of flavour)
  • 5–6 chile de árbol
  • Salt to taste

Toast the chiles lightly in a pan, making sure not to burn them. This improves flavour and aroma. Remove seeds and stems

Char the tomatoes and onion lightly in a pan or grill.

Cover everything with water and bring to a light boil for 5 mins to soften everything for blending.

Throw everything in the blender (or food processor) and blend until desired consistency — some like their sauce thicker/chunkier than others.

Typically, the sauce is thin but not water-thin. More-or-less like a watery paste.

Pico de gallo

  • 3–4 medium tomatoes
  • 1/2 onion
  • A handful or 1/2 cup of cilantro
  • 1 serrano
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt to taste

Dice the tomato, onion, serrano and cilantro in 1/2 cm pieces, discarding the serrano seeds— we’re aiming for a very small dice but not necessarily brunoise. Use the cilantro stems for more flavour.

Add the lime juice and 1 tsp salt to start then mix well and leave to incorporate for 10 minutes.

Taste and adjust salt if necessary.

Salsa de morita (a.k.a Salsa macha)

Morita is Chipotle with less processing (less drying/smoking) so sub if you want to.

  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 10–12 Morita chiles
  • 3–4 garlic cloves (depending on garlic preference)
  • 1 cup hot water
  • Salt to taste

Heat oil over medium heat and gently fry the chiles and garlic. This step is pretty quick so be sure not to burn the chiles — burnt chiles will taste bitter.

Remove chiles and garlic with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl with a cup of water. Let soak for about 10 minutes.

Place in a blender or food processer with about ½ of the soaking water and the oil where the peppers and garlic were fried. Process until you have a grainy textured salsa — it should be quite chunky.

Season with salt, taste and adjust if necessary.

Salsa de ancho w/ caramelized onion and cumin

A non-traditional take on a common sauce. Omit the cumin and don’t caramelize onion for a more classic version.

  • 3 chile ancho
  • 5–10 chile de árbol (depending on their size and how spicy you want it)
  • 1/2 onion caramelized
  • 1/2 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
  • 1–2 cloves garlic (depending on how much you like garlic)
  • Salt to taste (start with 1 tsp)

Slice the onion and cook on a very low heat for 20+ mins until caramelized and extremely soft. Don’t try to increase the heat to rush the process; it won’t work and you’ll just burn the onion.

While caramelizing, toast the chiles and deseed the ancho. Don’t bother with the chile de árbol.

Soak everything in hot water for 15–20 mins. Alternatively, bring to a light boil for 5 mins. I prefer the soaking method as boiling can bring out some bitterness.

Blend everything and adjust salt.

Cook and food writer based in Mexico City. Talking food and all its intersections | IG:

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