The sixth sense? No, the sixth flavor!
My Best Salsas
Photographs by Daniela Pacheco
Reflecting on salsas and what makes them so special–on Taco Day
When the Tahona Society asked me to collaborate with this project to mark Taco Day in Mexico (March 31st), I began to think about what salsas I should include. My best salsas? I have to confess I spent several days with the question running through my head. My best salsas? The answer came to me, like all my best ideas, after a sleepless night… they are all my best salsas. I don’t want to sound arrogant or annoying, but bear with me…this will all make sense.
In Mexico our salsas are always prepared in the moment, usually with local and seasonal ingredients. Traversing the geography of our country means taking a trip through many regional cuisines, crossing cultural borders that don’t follow state lines, but rather a blueprint of the cultures of our ancestors…. There are so many things to try! And what do you know? Every region comes with its salsas. In the center of Mexico, where we are lucky to be a melting pot for all of these people and cultures, we are very used to having it all. We have habanero salsas from the Yucatán, the base of the aguachile from the north pacific region, the salsas arrieras (made with ants!) from the central regions, and the “blender” salsas that “progress” and a hectic lifestyle brought us.
I guess what I mean is that I can talk best about my “favorite” salsas in any given situation. Whether one salsa is better than another, if one’s intensity stands out or if it ignites the flavors of a taco perfectly—this all is determined precisely by what lies beneath it. I just wrote this and I keep thinking about it…because, at the same time, a mediocre taco can become glorious with the right salsa!
I firmly believe that one of the reasons that Mexican food has so many devotees around the world is that each diner decides exactly what the final flavor will be in every bite at the table, selecting and adding the salsa that makes the best impression on them, the one that means the most to them and stirs them emotionally. Eating tacos in Mexico means not only choosing a place that makes delicious tacos, but also finding the taquería that makes the best salsas. There should always be three prerequisite salsas on the table: one red, one green, and one that is very spicy and can be any color. Offering four salsas is even better, and five takes us to heavenly glory. Personally, I dedicate one bite of the first taco to try each available option. Why? Trying a salsa with tortilla chips is not the same as trying it with the dish it was prepared for. Sometimes, my gut feeling about the color or consistency of the grilled and smashed salsa presented in the molcajete (mortar and pestle) is extremely lucky and I end up marrying that salsa from the first bite, smothering the rest of my tacos with my chosen beloved salsa.
So, what makes a salsa the perfect salsa?
There are many things that go into the mythical, ideal salsa. It may sound elusive, I know, so here are the five most important, according to yours truly.
First I want to recognize that there is an exception to this rule. There are some bottled salsas that never disappoint– these are usually vinegary or suspended in oil. Otherwise, and as a rule of thumb, in Mexico we know that a good salsa should be made in the moment, and if refrigerated, be consumed shortly thereafter.
This point alone merits an entire book, or at least a post– Luckily, I already wrote it! I recommend you read it to understand that chileness is not the same as spiciness. And yes, we Mexicans are pushing for it to be recognized as the sixth flavor. The Japanese got away with umami, so I think we have a pretty good shot. But getting back to salsas, that “guacamole” that you prepare without chile so that it isn’t too hot for your friends…is not guacamole, it’s mashed avocado.
We Mexicans love to say that there’s nothing easier or quicker than whipping up a bowl of fresh salsa. And while that may be true for a few recipes, a good salsa generally takes some time. Prepare them with patience and love, because the result is worth it!
- A little too much salt
A Mexican salsa should always be a little on the salty side. My abuela Tita (she’s 96, y’all!) says that salsa should be “picosita para que alcance y saladita para que sobre” (hot enough to make sure there’ll be enough for everyone and salty enough so that there’s some left over for tomorrow).
The different preparation techniques, used in Mexico since ancestral times, transform the original flavors of the ingredients to bring out more sweetness, acidity, bitterness or piquancy in the salsa. Something I love to think about is when I tatemar, or heavily cook onion, for example– not just roasting it, but taking it just a bit further, to the point where most cooks would consider it ruined. But cooking onions in this way caramelizes the onion’s natural sugars, concentrating and burning them, adding clearly bitter notes to the sweetness. Enter the acidity from slightly roasted tomatillos, the heat from the chile, the saltiness. Each of these flavors pulls at your tongue from different angles, and in the center of it all, when there’s balance, umami is born.The best salsas are the result of repetition and of a willingness to break some rules. Below are some of my favorites to both make and eat. Happy salsa making, and happy Taco Day!
Green Sauce (Fresh/Raw)
- 5 green tomatoes (tomatillos) (8.60 oz or 245g)
- 1/4 onion (2.35 oz or 66.5 g)
- 2 serrano chilies
- 1 handful cilantro with stems (1.3 oz or 37g)
- salt, to taste
Grind all of the ingredients in a blender.
Salt to taste.
Red Tomato Salsa
3 Roma tomatoes (14 oz or 390 g)
⅛ onion (1.20 oz or 33 oz)
1 clove garlic (0.20 or 5 g)
2 serrano chiles
salt, to taste
Char the tomatoes, chiles and onion on a comal or hot iron skillet for 8 minutes on each side.
Leave them on the comal or skillet, without moving them.
Grill the garlic for 4 minutes on each side.
In a molcajete (mortar and pestle) grind the ingredients, starting with the salt, garlic, onion chiles, and then tomatoes. If using a blender, do not “overblend” —the salsa should have a chunky texture.
Add chopped fresh cilantro and raw garlic (instead of the roasted one) for a deliciously aromatic and pungent variation.
Jorge Fitz is a designer, passionate cook and food historian. He is also half the cooking team at Casa Jacaranda, a market to table cooking experience in the heart of Colonia Roma in Mexico City. Follow him on Instagram: @casajacarandamx