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Salsa - ancient and modern

"It's all about an attack on the palate and tang ... and then it's about crunch. There's no right or wrong." Jamie Oliver

I saw this segment on Jamie's COVID19 crisis program a week or so ago and noted salsa as a potential subject. So here I go. Do watch the video because it gives a very good introduction to the sort of stuff to put into a salsa, with little tips and tricks along the way - stirring the toasting corn with the dekernelled cob for example!

Salsa it seems to me is one of those very modern things. It's everywhere. I doubt there is an edition of Coles Magazine or any of the other foodie magazines that doesn't have a salsa recipe in it somewhere. And indeed I checked my current Coles Magazine, and even though it's winter and salsa is generally associated in the contemporary mind with barbecues and summer, there is indeed one recipe - Roasted vegetables with lemon salsa - from Curtis Stone no less. Here it is - it looks absolutely delicious. I'm going to try it some time soon.

I have been trying to find out how salsa became such a thing and have had to come to my own conclusions rather than getting the absolute truth, so I will say what I think happened.

The origins of salsa lie, as we all know, in Mexico, with the Aztecs, who used to make a condiment out of tomato, chillies and ground squash seeds to accompany their roast meats and fish. And indeed this still is the foundation of your basic tomato salsa. These days one tends to add things like lime or lemon juice, coriander, salt and some oil, but it's a recipe that has not been messed with much. And it's good.

The Spanish, of course, were captivated and first called it salsa in 1571. Salsa means sauce in Spanish and derives from the Latin for salt. Which is a bit odd as salt is not really a main ingredient. So yes, salsa is really just another word for sauce. But we all know there are thousands and thousands of different kinds of sauce. These days what we know of as salsa is made from fresh ingredients which are chopped or pulverised to a greater or lesser degree and dressed with something acid and oil. There are specific sauces that fit into this definition, salsa verde, mint sauce ... but I'm ignoring those here. They need their own particular posts. I think you all probably know what I am talking about today.

The Americans also were captivated somewhat later in the day when Mexican or Tex-Mex food became a huge fast food enterprise. In 1916 they began bottling this kind of thing in New Orleans. But this kind of thing is not really what I am talking about - it's sort of a chunkier version of something like HP sauce - different flavours of course, but a bottled sauce or relish. When I checked salsa at the Coles Online website that is the kind of product that I found. Various jars of dark reddish, chilli spiked sauces of varying degrees of chunkiness to go with your tacos, probably cooked at some point. Of fresh salsas there were none.

Which is interesting. I mean, yes a fresh salsa needs to be fresh, but that doesn't seem to stop them when it comes to salad mixes, so why not salsas?

But back to history. Obviously at some point, some chef or other hit upon the concept of a fresh salsa which although based on the original Mexican salsa was different in that it included other vegetables, more flavourings and fruit. I cannot find where this idea began, but I'm guessing it is a late 20th century thing when Middle-Eastern, Mexican and Indian foods all became popular, plus Lean Cuisine, and a mania for fresh. And it became so popular that it is a standard in foodie magazines and cookbooks. Jamie, in his video, gives you the basic concept and you can also read another version of the same thing in an article called How to make a salsa out of anything - by Rick Martinez on the Bon Appétit website.

So it's obviously popular with the chefs and they obviously think we are into it, but I wonder, does the average housewife make up a salsa when they have a barbecue? Because they don't seem to be able to buy them ready-made.

As to cookbooks, well I checked out the last two of mine that I have looked at - Jerusalem and Falastin and found a few examples - some of which were used as a sort of salad to accompany grilled or roasted meats and vegetables. As in Yotam Ottolenghi's Panfried mackerel with golden beetroot and orange salsa.

Plonking your salsa on top of a thick soup seems to be another option - and Delia has a few examples of this. But here is Falastin's Butternut squash and saffron soup with caramelised pistachios and herb salsa. More of a garnish than a salsa don't you think? Another one that is more a garnish, and also from Falastin is Orange blossom, honey and baklava semi-freddo (the salsa is the orange, pomegranate seeds and mint leaves on top). I can't find the recipes online, but then there isn't really a recipe for the salsas as they are so simple. Just looking at the pictures will give you the idea.

So salsa has morphed from three simple ingredients - tomatoes, chillies, squash seeds, eaten as a condiment, through jars of pulverised or mashed tomatoey chilli sauces into rather glorious mixes of whatever you have in your fridge, chopped and served as a sort of salad, to, these days, a rather more sophisticated garnish or almost dip. Indeed salsa has become such a trendy word, that it covers a very wide range of options.

My own favourite so far is this one - also from Coles Magazine, BBQ haloumi with strawberry salsa. It is delicious, vegetarian and even I managed to make it look good.

Watch Jamie though, it's fun.


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