Without it, a tortilla chip is just a tortilla chip, and a taco just isn’t a taco. America’s love of salsa has come a long way over the past few decades, and today many know it as a fresh, ever-evolving creation that its bland moniker—Spanish for “sauce”—doesn’t even begin to describe. But while you may know the difference between pico de gallo and mole and whether you prefer it hot, mild, or medium, there’s still a lot you probably don’t know about salsa.
1. WE MAKE IT A LOT LIKE THE AZTECS DID.
Tomatoes and chilies were first domesticated in Latin America thousands of years ago, and the Aztecs were the first to combine these two elements, along with a few other choice ingredients, to make what we now call salsa. In the Florentine Codex, one of the earliest accounts of Aztec life, a Spanish missionary described a local salsa vendor who sold ingredients that are still popular today, including “tomatoes, with smoked chile, with hot chile, with yellow chile, with mild red chile sauce.”
2. MEXICANS FIND OUR SALSA EATING HABITS STRANGE.
Wolfing down bowls of salsa with chips is a foreign concept for many Mexicans, who prefer their salsas in moderation. As a chef in Oaxaca told The New York Times, “Watching someone shovel in salsa with tortilla chips is strange to Mexicans. Like how an American would feel watching someone drink salad dressing out of the bottle.”
3. A SYRUP MAKER PRODUCED THE FIRST COMMERCIALLY SUCCESSFUL SALSA IN THE U.S.
The Pace family made their name producing cane molasses in Alexandria, Louisiana. After serving as a pilot during World War II, David Pace moved to San Antonio, Texas and began manufacturing syrup, along with a few other foods like jam, salad dressing, pickles, and salsa. Pace loved his chile salsa so much that he decided to jettison all other products and focus on that alone. He called it Pace Picante, and today it’s still one of the country’s top-selling salsa labels.
4. IT BECAME AMERICA’S TOP-SELLING CONDIMENT 25 YEARS AGO.
In 1991, sales of bottled salsa overtook ketchup, which came as a shock to many, including George Costanza. According to the media at the time, this signaled Latin America’s arrival as a major cultural influence in America. To Jerry Seinfeld, though, it was just a sign that people love to say salsa.
5. PICO DE GALLO SALSA MEANS “ROOSTER’S BEAK SALSA.”
The translation might sound odd, but this salsa variety has become seriously popular in American restaurants like Chipotle. Made from fresh diced tomatoes, onion, jalapeños, and cilantro, its name originates from the traditional method of eating it with just two fingers—a motion that resembled the pecking of a rooster's beak.
6. THE DANCE TOOK ITS NAME FROM THE SAUCE.
Salsa dancing blended elements of Hispanic, Caribbean, and African dance moves as it took shape in 1970s New York. The name, according to author Juliet McMains, was a commercial shorthand club owners and record companies used to promote the music as soulful and spicy, just like the sauce.
7. THE FRENCH MAKE SALSA WITH CORNICHON PICKLES AND KETCHUP.
America isn’t the only country with its own spin on salsa. In Europe, where Latin American cuisine is beginning to grow in popularity, salsas often incorporate local ingredients. In Japan, meanwhile, you can find Mexican restaurants that use kewpie mayo and shishito peppers in their salsa.
8. TACO BELL’S FIRST SALSA WAS ORIGINALLY CHILI DOG SAUCE.
Glen Bell, the company’s founder, started out serving hot dogs and running miniature golf courses. So he wasn’t exactly steeped in Mexican food culture when he opened Taco Bell. Instead of developing a new salsa for his tacos, he just transferred the sauce he used on his chili dogs. His customers, who were just as ill-versed in Mexican cuisine as he was, didn’t know the difference. It was the first of many less-than-authentic steps for a company that now serves chicken biscuit tacos.
9. IT’S OFFICIALLY A VEGETABLE, ACCORDING TO THE USDA.
Back in 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made the designation, clearing the way for schools to use and promote its consumption. It was yet another victory for salsa over ketchup, which tried and failed to gain the same designation during the Reagan administration.
All images via iStock.