Riding Salsa’s Coast-to-Coast Wave of Popularity, by Florence Fabricant, June 2, 1993

“When he was President of France, Charles de Gaulle once wondered how it was possible to govern a country that made 400 cheeses (or was it 246 or 300?). How about a country with more than 300 salsas (or is it 246 or 400)?

The flood of salsas into supermarkets all over the United States has yet to crest. Salsa, — simply ‘sauce’ in Spanish (and in Italian, too, for that matter) — has come to be defined in the American market as any fresh-tasting, chunky mixture, usually made with tomatoes, chilies, onions and other seasonings.

Although salsa has always been associated with Mexican and Southwestern cooking, it has suddenly overflowed its ethnic niche and become big business, so big that H. J. Heinz has introduced not only a salsa, but also a salsa-style ketchup with vegetable chunks. The Heinz salsa, which is sold only in warehouse-style food clubs, comes in one size, a 70-ounce tub. Talk about optimism.

The appetite for salsa is one of the most visible manifestations of the current American trend toward spicier food. ‘Consumers are turning to hotter, spicier condiments,’ said Cheryl Stewart-Miller, a spokeswoman for Heinz U.S.A. ‘In 1988, only 16 percent of American households bought salsa. Last year the figure was 36 percent.’

Pace Foods of San Antonio has the largest share of the United States market, with 28 percent. In 1947, it introduced Pace Picante, the first salsa sold in this country, it says. ‘Salsa was basically something the Mexicans made at home, and producing it commercially was a novel idea at the time,’ said Matt Mohr, Pace’s marketing manager.

Picante is a type of salsa that is typically somewhat thinner than many of the products called salsa on the market today. But these days, the market trend seems to be toward thick. So in 1988, Pace introduced a salsa, but it is not yet sold nationally.

Packaged Facts, a New York marketing-information company, said salsas and picantes accounted for about two-thirds of the total Mexican sauce market, a category that also includes taco and enchilada sauces. Salsas and picantes are used mainly as dips and condiments rather than as sauces for cooking. Mexican sauces made news because as a group, they outsold ketchup in 1991. By the end of next year it’s possible that just salsas and picantes will outsell ketchup.

David Weiss, the president of Packaged Facts, says he believes the market is nowhere near its peak. He projects that sales of Mexican sauces, which were $730 million in 1992, will double by the end of 1996.

As the salsa market grows, so do the choices.

The simplest salsas are based on chopped fresh tomatoes. Salsas are usually labeled according to the amount of firepower generated by the chilies, another necessary ingredient. They range from the mildest, which are no challenge to the timid, to the hottest, fueled with searing quantities of habanero chilies and sought after by people with asbestos palates.

At their hottest, salsas provide a splash of accent in a dish, making all the flavors sing. But about 85 percent of the salsas sold are mild or medium, suitable for consuming by the bucket with tortilla chips (another growth industry) and beer or margaritas. Nutritionists howled when the Reagan Administration suggested that ketchup counted as a vegetable. What about salsa by the scoopful?

The milder salsas can also be spooned onto grilled foods as a topping or served as a snappy condiment with eggs, seafood and vegetables.

Salsas are one of the few popular snack foods that are fat-free or nearly so, which may contribute to their popularity. Many are also made without preservatives.

A collection of 31 of them, all mildly spiced but in a range of styles, were assembled for a comparison tasting at The New York Times. The best offered complex, well-balanced flavor, with restrained spiciness. Textures ranged from uniformly fine (but never perfectly smooth) to chunky. Those that were not highly rated were often one-dimensional, tasting mostly of tomato and sometimes seeming more like tomato sauce than salsa.

Although most salsas are tomato-based, the restless American palate, ever ready for some new tease, is showing signs of moving on. ‘Green salsas are starting to become more popular,’ said Ron Tanner, a spokesman for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.

For instance, a group of green salsas, or salsas verdes, are being introduced by D. L. Jardine in Buda (pronounced bee-YOU-da), Tex. The choices are cilantro and green olives, cactus, green chilies and green tomatillo. And Miguel’s Stowe Away, one of 11 salsa makers in Vermont, of all places, is adding a green salsa to its line.

Also becoming more visible are varietal salsas, which bear the name of the dominant chili, be it chipotle, habanero, cascabel, arbol or jalapeno. Appearing in stores, too, are fruit salsas, made with peaches, pineapples and the like, and vegetable salsas, made with pinto beans, black beans, corn and black-eyed peas.

All salsas that are sold unrefrigerated have been cooked to some degree, but some taste fresher than others. In Mexico, salsas are traditionally made fresh daily at home from ingredients that vary according to region. Those who want fresh salsa have the option of buying a refrigerated variety or of making it at home. Recipes fill a number of new cookbooks.

Many American chefs, and not just those specialing in Southwestern or Mexican cooking, are now finding in salsa the kind of creative outlet that pesto afforded a few years ago.

A cookbook called ‘Salsa’ by Reed Hearon, a former chef at Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., and now the chef at Lulu in San Francisco, was just published by Chronicle Books ($12.95). Another called ‘Salsa,’ by P. J. Birosik, the food editor of The Sedona (Ariz.) Red Rock News, will be released by Collier Books ($13) next month. ‘Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys and Chow-Chows,’ by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby (Morrow, $20), is just out.

These books contain recipes for some unlikely salsas, among them wild mushroom, mocha, banana-rum, El Salvadoran clam, sushi, ginger, potato-apple and, no surprise, chili pesto.

There’s also plenty about salsa in ‘The New Texas Cuisine,’ by Stephan Pyles (Doubleday, $30), and in ‘Coyote’s Pantry,’ by Mark Miller and Mark Kiffin, scheduled for publication by Ten Speed Press ($21.95) in July.

Bobby Flay, the chef at Mesa Grill in New York, has just finished the manuscript for his new cookbook, to be published next year by Warner Books. There will be plenty of salsa recipes. ‘My most popular one is a smoked tomato salsa,” he said, “but I also make fruit salsas and a barbecued corn salsa.’

He said that when making salsa, it is important to balance the acidic, sweet and hot flavors. ‘Otherwise, you can make salsa with just about anything,’ he added.

And lately, that’s just what everyone is doing.

-Excerpt and image courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Riding Salsa’s Coast-to-Coast Wave of Popularity,” by Florence Fabricant, June 2, 1993

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