Salsa is both the Spanish and the Italian word for sauce. In the evolution of food awareness in the US, sauce once meant a buttery, creamy French sauce or the classic Italian tomato sauce. Mysteriously, many Italian-Americans called their tomato sauce 'gravy,' the reasoning for that only partly obvious. As we began to globalize, food awareness grew. When Southwestern became a food craze, salsa became popular, especially with grilled food, and is now inextricably linked to Mexican salsa. Many salsa recipes that are not authentic Mexican recipes carry that influence so strongly that we don't know the difference between the real Mexican salsa and the adopted one. Fusion cooking has gripped the world and rightful ownership of any cuisine seems to exist only in those valuable old books that we all cherish. There are salsas made primarily with fruits, some made with vegetables. Some salsas are cooked, some are not. Beans make a filing salsa. The important element to a successful salsa is freshness of ingredients. That is true with all foods, but of utmost importance when not cooking foods. Salsa is lively and lively means fresh.
Salsa is an ancient condiment. Food historians believe that 15th-century Aztec Indians made it in some form. The first
person to write of what may have been salsa was Bernardino de Sahagún who made
note of a prepared sauce that was offered for sale in the markets of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City today). In the sauce were
tomatoes, hot red peppers, hot green peppers and pumpkin seeds. Sahagún says, "He [the market vendor] sells foods, sauces, hot sauces, fried [food], olla-cooked, juices, sauces of juices, shredded [food] with chile, with squash seeds, with tomatoes, with smoke chile, with hot chile, with yellow chile, with mild red chile sauce, yellow chile sauce, sauce of smoked chile, heated sauce, he sells toasted beans, cooked beans, mushroom sauce, sauce of small squash, sauce of large tomatoes, sauce of ordinary tomatoes, sauce of various kinds of sour herbs, avocado sauce."
A chilling record of an early salsa was recorded by eyewitnesses to Aztec sacrifice. An intrinsic form of their religion, human sacrifice was conducted to keep the sun in its path. The victim would have its heart cut out (by priests) and its limbs severed. Ritualized feasting on these limbs was an integral part of the ritual of sacrifice. Moctezuma reputedly ate the thighs of young men with a sauce of tomato and chili pepper. If this was salsa, it was a lively one at that.
Tomatoes, or as the Aztecs knew them tomatl, and chile peppers, were gifts from the new world to the old, though not with human body part. They have been in existence since prehistoric times and recipes are handed down from mother to daughter. In Mexico, salsa is made by hand, not purchased in a can. Freshness is a quality of salsa that Mexican cooks value.
Brought to North American shores by the vast immigrant population welcomed here, today salsas and chutneys have has blended, twisted, joined forces with other cuisines. We celebrate the perpetual mutation as it leads us to the discovery of new and exciting combinations. Salsas join the smooth texture of mild cheeses with their chunky , spicy textures. In southern restaurants, salsa and tortilla chips are brought to the table as soon as customers are seated. Salsa has become so popular that it has overtaken the perennial favorite, ketchup, as the best selling ingredient in the US. And for the home cook, salsa offers a hidden ingredient: making salsa releases the imagination. Salsa is also a Latin dance and that's the clue for how to prepare a good salsa. Dance in the kitchen, experiment, play, have fun with salsa. But no human sacrifice, please.