Mexican Salsas

Hot Sauce, the preferred peppery partner of fiery fiends everywhere, is as diverse as it is delicious. It seems as if everywhere in the world where chili peppers have found their way into local dishes and food cultures, they have also conjured it in the form of a condiment. A little something to spice up the food after the fact and to take it from dull to delightful. In this article, we’ll take you on a tour of different kinds of hot sauces that are popular in Mexico.

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Mexican Salsas

What is a Hot Sauce?

What does it take to be a “Hot sauce”?

Merriam-Webster defines hot sauce simply as “a pungent condiment sauce made from hot peppers.” That might be a good starting point for our investigation, allowing for the multitude of culturally diverse ways in which people around the globe have incorporated a pungent plant in the local hot sauce.

So what makes a hot sauce good? It is not easy to pin down exactly, and unfortunately no court of chile peppers can convene to clear up this mess of fermented, dried, boiled, and fried sauces. Purists form the United States might allege the superiority of their cultural format: the thin, vinegar-y concoction, best known from the world’s bestselling Tabasco.

While many countries across the globe now use the chile fruit frequently, Mexico is the original birthplace of the capsicum species. So with that in mind, why don’t we start by exploring Mexican hot sauces?

Homemade Salsas (Salsa de Mesa)

Anyone lucky enough to have had the pleasure of eating Mexican food in Mexico will be familiar with the ubiquitous salsas lining tables and countertops anywhere and everywhere here, the salsa de mesa. Often found in a red (roja) and a green (verde) version, these versatile sauces are enjoyed with a great variety of dishes.

They find commonality in the usage of cilantro, onion, garlic and of course chilies – although the varieties used might differ. The red version uses plum red roma tomatoes, whilst the green is most often based on tomatillos, a small tangy fruit of a tomato-like plant covered in a papery husk. Tomatillos are different from green tomatoes (but in the same extended family), which are larger, unripe ‘classic’ tomatoes.

A side note on Mexican culture is the prevalent idea that you don’t put onion in a classic salsa de mesa. In many places in Mexico, once you put onion in a sauce, it changes character and goes from being a condiment to being a dish.

Salsa Macha

From the state of Veracruz in Mexico, more exactly the cities of Orizaba and Cordoba, originates a type of chili condiment very different from the classic table types. In its essence, it mixes and blends fried dried Mexican chilies (often the spicy árbol or smoky morita), garlic and optionally seeds, nuts and spices. It is combined into a hot, flavorful purée and kept in vegetable or olive oil. The simplicity of the ingredients hides the fact that great attention must be given to the frying process. Achieving the correct toasting level ensures a fantastic flavor and avoids developing undesired bitterness. It goes particularly well with grilled meats, but for any heat lover its addition will lighten up entire meals, no matter their origin.

You will often find salsa macha that includes peanuts, adding to the salsa a rich nutty flavor almost making it a hot & spicy peanut butter. Other common additions are sesame or sunflower seeds, but the possibilities are endless!

Bottled Sauces

Even in Mexico, with its vast offering of freshly prepared table salsas, you will encounter a few bottled tabletop classics. This comes as no surprise, given the country’s relation to spicy peppers, however, the way of using it might just be new. Amongst some of the most popular bottled hot sauces in Mexico, as well as in the US, are Valentina, Cholula, El Yucateco, and Salsa Búfalo.

The Valentina is a popular hot sauce in Mexico - in fact, in many movie theaters, there are dispensers filled with Valentina so that you can pour it on top of your popcorn!

The Cholula is made in Jalisco, and it is named after the city of Cholula. This one is similar to the Valentina but has a deeper and smokier chili flavor.

El Yucateco is a hot sauce made primarily from different kinds of habanero chilies and is pretty spicy compared to Valentina and Cholula. This one is produced in the Peninsula of Yucatan, Mexico as its name suggests. Finally, we have the Búfalo hot sauce. This one is produced in Mexico City, and consists of a mix of guajillo chilies, garlic, sugar, and spices. Unlike the other hot sauces, this one is much thicker and has a less vinegary taste. It also has a hint of sweetness and smoke and has a moderate level of spice.