When the Spanish Conquistadors discovered the spicy condiment that had been made in South and Central America for many centuries, they named it “salsa” which simply means sauce. We know that this condiment was a popular food with the Aztecs, because it was described in the writings of a missionary in 1529. The Aztecs combined tomatoes (which were native to the New World and unknown in Europe) or tomatillos with chile peppers and occasionally other ingredients such as beans or squash seeds, and served the sauce primarily as a condiment to accompany meat, poultry, or fish. There is evidence that the Mayans and Incas also made a type of salsa.
However, salsa of the type recognized by Americans today did not appear commercially until around the time of World War II. The most famous brand originated in Texas around 1947 and was named picante sauce. This recipe uses tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno peppers in varying combinations depending upon the degree of spiciness desired.
There are now many different types of salsa that have become quite popular. Some are these include salsa roja or red sauce, which is the most familiar type and what many call picante sauce. It is typically a combination of cilantro, chile peppers, garlic, onion, and cooked tomatoes. Salsa verde or green sauce normally uses cooked tomatillos (which are not actually a tomato but a plant related to nightshade) mixed with peppers, onions, and cilantro.
Pico de gallo is a fresh sauce often used to dress plates in Mexican style restaurants. It has little liquid content, and is usually made with raw tomatoes, chile peppers, cilantro, onions, and a little lime juice. Salsa Negra or black sauce is made with garlic, oil, and dried chile peppers. Other types of popular salsas include guacamole, mango salsa, and mole. Since the word “salsa” means sauce, virtually any type of condiment can earn the designation, and some salsas are sweet rather than spicy.
It is important to store salsa properly, since tomatoes in particular can act as a breeding ground for several different types of bacteria. Commercial salsas should be refrigerated after opening, and homemade varieties should be placed in the refrigerator if not served within thirty or forty five minutes. Homemade salsa will keep in the refrigerator for two or three days, and any remaining salsa should be thrown out after that. When serving, it is best to place a small bowl on the table and, as needed, replace it with a clean bowl of salsa instead of refilling the first one.
Salsa is very easy to prepare. For most recipes, all you need to do is mix together the chopped ingredients. In the old days, a mortar and pestle was used, but today a blender set on low (and watched carefully) or a food processor can cut preparation time to just five or ten minutes. One word of warning, however: Chile and jalapeno peppers can burn your skin. You might want to wear gloves when working with them. You also want to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards to avoid getting the juice in your eyes or mouth should your hands come in contact with these sensitive tissues.
For those who would like to prepare their own salsas, here are two easy recipes to get you started. Please note that you can adjust the amount of peppers or other spices to make the sauces hotter or milder as you prefer. If you want a much hotter salsa, you can also replace some or all of the jalapenos with habanero peppers.
Pico de Gallo: Combine the following ingredients in a bowl and then refrigerate for three to four hours before serving. This recipe will make about 2-1/2 cups.
• 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped very fine
• 5 tomatoes, medium sized, diced and with the seeds removed
• 1 garlic clove, chopped very fine
• 2 green onions, chopped very fine
• 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro
• 1 tablespoon of lime juice
Salsa Mexicana: Combine all of the following ingredients in a large bowl. Recipe will yield about 2-1/2 cups.
• 2 jalapeno peppers, chopped very fine
• 3 tomatoes, medium sized, chopped and with the seeds removed
• 1 red onion, medium sized, chopped
• 3 tablespoons of chopped cilantro
• 1 tablespoon of lime juice