There are people in this great wide world who put hot sauce on everything. Whether it’s scrambled eggs or raw fish, they’re not happy unless it has heat. As someone who grew up on the east side of Los Angeles, I’m no stranger to these types, though I only join their ranks when the sauce in question is something more akin to salsa. I can live without a vinegar-forward hot sauce, but try to take a nice green salsa out of my hands and you’ll witness wrath like what I felt as a child — dodging chanclas from irate grandmas and aunts who were irked that I’d swiped the last of their homemade salsa for my nachos.
Still, classic hot sauce and more refined salsas seek to do the same thing: enhance already delicious foods with a spicy note. And they do work on most everything, with a few exceptions. Fruits, vegetables, and cocktails rarely call out for a wet sauce. They need something powdered to offer texture and deliver a kick. Enter Tajín.
At its root, Tajín (ta-HEE-en) is a simple mix of chili peppers, salt, and dehydrated lime. It was created in 1985 by Mexican entrepreneur Horacio Fernandez — who was inspired by his grandmother’s special blend of salsa and sought a way to bring the flavor to the masses, drawing his product’s name from the indigenous Nahuatl word for chili, “aji.” Why Horacio thought to take a dry approach instead of simply bottling some sauce we may never know, but each year the special blend grows in popularity here in the US, thanks to its versatility, palate-pleasing flavor, and recent cool factor amongst chefs and bartenders.
Taste-wise, tajín greets you with a lime indebted tangy burst that’s immediately balanced by saltiness, with a lingering mild spice that draws you in for a second taste. It’s your basic “heat tempered with citrus” combo and it works because of that simplicity. In terms of actual chili, this is pretty mild — just strong enough to open up the flavor profile of anything it’s used on, definitely light enough for rookies to enjoy.
If the words above are stirring a vague recollection in you, you may have come in contact with Tajín by way of the Michelada, which itself is having a bit of a moment. This mix of beer, clamato (or tomato juice), Worcestershire, and hot sauce is almost always garnished with a Tajín salted rim. Or perhaps you found it on the rim of a more upmarket cocktail. Two years ago bartenders rarely passed us recipes calling for Tajín; these days it’s as common an ingredient as triple sec or Angostura bitters.
Of course, if you’ve spent any time at all in Los Angeles you were in the know much earlier. The streets are absolutely alive with Tajín this time of year, thanks to street vendors who use it to spice up their offerings — from mayo and Tajín doused elotes to Tajín sprinkled fresh-cut cucumber and mango to the seasoned paletas shown above. If you’re not in LA, it’s also readily available at most major markets nationwide; look for it in the annoyingly named “ethnic food” aisle.