The Hot Little History of Salsa Sauce

The term salsa can refer to a variety of sauces, though in the United States it generally refers to the spicy tomato based hot sauce used as a dip for nacho chips. While the word salsa is derived from the Latin word meaning “salty”, in Spanish the word means simply a “sauce,” making it redundant to call the dip “salsa sauce,” as is sometimes done. Though, this redundancy is sometimes used to separate salsa, the sauce, from salsa, the dance, particularly when discussing the topic on the Internet.

This history of salsa goes back thousands of years, all the way to the Inca, Aztecs and Mayans. The sauce remained popular throughout the Mexican peninsula, all through ancient times. Since these early times, salsa has been a staple in the Mexican diet, with some likening salsa to a fine wine, asserting that entire meals should be planned around the salsa, as the salsa itself is the most flavorful part of the meal. When the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the early 1500s, the real history of salsa began, and by later that century, this spicy combination of tomatoes and chili peppers, now named “salsa”, became a common condiment, served atop various meat dishes.

Salsa comes in multiple varieties. Popular types include traditional red salsa, with tomatoes, chili peppers, onions and garlic, as well as mango salsa, which is a sweet and spicy combination of mangoes, tomatoes and spices. Guacamole is a type of thicker salsa, a green dip made from avocado. Mexican salsa generally uses red tomato, combined with onion, garlic, chilies, and cilantro, in small, chopped chunks. Sometimes green tomatoes, called tomatillos, are used, and some varieties of the sauce include vinegar and lime juice, sometimes even various seeds and nuts. Contrary to popular belief, Mexican salsa does not have to be exceptionally hot. In fact, no respecting Mexican cook would want the heat to overpower the flavor of their homemade salsa.

Eventually, the popularity of Mexican salsa brought it to the southwestern United States. The manufacturing of salsa began in the U.S. in 1916; its origins are tightly entwined with the history of hot sauce, with most companies that made salsa making hot sauce as well. These first salsas were made in New Orleans, with the most popular being Red Hot Creole Peppersauce. These early spicy hot sauces eventually made there way to California a year later. By the mid 1900s, different companies were making a variety of brands: Baumer Foods released Crystal Hot Sauce and Bruce Foods originated Original Louisiana Hot Sauce; both of these brands are still sold today.

It was in 1941 that salsa varieties really started to take off, as La Victoria Sales Company released red and green taco sauce, and enchilada sauces. Later they released Green Chili Salsa and Red Salsa Jalapeño. As with many food products, fresh salsa is usually considered superior to store bought varieties. With fresh salsa, the herb flavors are powerful, and the vitamins of the vegetables are completely intact. This freshness, coupled with the naturally low fat nature of salsa, makes it an extremely healthful sauce. Though as with many fresh foods, one needs to be careful with preparation and storage, to prevent bacterial growth.

While homemade salsa may be the best, that has not stopped an entire industry of salsa from springing up. Many restaurants, in fact, pride themselves on offering amazing selections of salsas and hot sauces, in various colors, flavors, and heat levels. Whether you choose homemade tomato based, store bought super hot, or a restaurant special, there is nothing like a little salsa to enhance the flavor of any meal.