I haven’t bought a bag of chips and a jar of salsa in weeks. Nor have I picked up any of the individual ingredients to make my own salsa, which I learned how to do with my friends and their families growing up in the southeastern tip of Houston, Texas.
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “If you’re going to write about how incredibly awesome salsa is, then why the hell are you opening with the ‘I don’t buy salsa’ line?”
Let me explain: Whenever I would buy chips and salsa (or salsa ingredients), my intention was to eat them with some degree of moderation. Chips and salsa are, after all, a snack food. My original plan was always to cook a nice soup, bake something in the oven, or prepare a stove-top dish of some kind. The chips and salsa were for munching, and I wasn’t going to jeopardize my meal plans by…
Screw that. I finished them all. Always. Every time. Soup can go to hell.
This happened to me, over and over, because salsa tastes really, really good. According to a 2014 projection, 71.69 million people in the U.S. eat salsa during any given week. Even without chips, this traditional Mexican culinary masterpiece can be added to just about anything — breakfast foods, vegetable dishes (especially potatoes), and yes, even pizza.
Not all salsas are created equal (or correctly, for that matter), and to better understand what goes into a good one, you have to know a thing or two about the condiment’s rich history. A history that, as it turns out, predates the arrival of the first Spanish settlers in North, South, and Central America.
According to culinary historian Sophie D. Coe’s America’s First Cuisines, the act of combining chiles, tomatoes, beans and other items into a sauce or sauce-like foodstuff can be traced all the way back to the Aztecs. Per the writings of Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary who came to New Spain in 1529, what we now call salsa was often sold in Aztec markets during the 16th century. In a passage cited by Coe, Sahagún describes one of the seller’s offerings:
He sells foods, sauces, hot sauces, fried [food], olla-cooked, juices, sauces of juices, shredded [food] with chile, with squash seeds, with tomatoes, with smoked 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.
By the time the Spaniards rolled into the new world, these early salsas had been around for centuries. Sounds like they had guac down, too. When Mexico’s independence from Spain was recognized in 1836, the long since conquered and assimilated indigenous cultures were already a part of the landscape — their salsa became “Mexican.”
It didn’t take salsa long to march well beyond the borders of Mexico. In the early going, it was especially popular in the American Southwest (territories that were part of Mexico prior to the Mexican-American War). With an influx of Mexican immigrants into southwestern and western states throughout the 1900s, salsa soon became a widespread staple.