Celiflor’s answer was clear and direct, much like the Zapotec language she speaks with her in-laws, Crispina and Fernando Sanchez-Lopez. After marrying their son Manuel five years ago, she moved in with them in Teotitlan del Valle, a small town on the outskirts of Oaxaca. Teotitlan is famous for its hand-woven wool carpets and its rich, vibrant, traditional Zapotec culture. “We don’t like to eat dry food,” she declared when I asked why Mexicans had so many different kinds of salsas. Molés or sauces commonly known as salsas are mostly chilli based and are boastfully flavourful. Not always piquant - guacamole immediately comes to mind - they are welcome additions to most meals. For every occasion, in every family, in all pueblas or villages, in the humblest homes and the grandest restaurants, there is always at least one bowl of salsa on the table to accompany whatever is being served.
For over thirty years we’ve been at times living, working or visiting this “land of the sun and the moon.” We’ve seen, eaten and, of course, made many salsas over time, but the simple genius of this most beloved national condiment had, on this occasion, truly captivated us. Be forewarned: Jars containing red or green concoctions with expiry dates on them are NOT true salsas. No commercial product has ever come remotely close to the real thing made from scratch. A great disservice has been done to a very refined, delicious and healthy, but unheralded, culinary tradition with the proliferation of these pre-fabricated products.
Mexico is the birth place of tomatoes, tomatillos, chillies, avocadoes, beans, squashes, pineapples, chocolate and vanilla. But, it is the seemingly endless variety and variations of salsas that boggle the mind. The flavours and diversity that salsas add to the simplest foods are well worth the peeling, roasting, toasting and grinding required.
It is the indigenous peoples of the country to whom we owe our gratitude for these gastronomic gems. As we travelled through Oaxaca and Chiapas, it was to the Lacandones and Zapotecs that we turned to for lessons in the world of salsas, and for guidance in navigating one of the most ancient culinary creations of the New World.
What became very clear about traditional Mexican home cooking is that the food is often very basic. There are always tortillas, any one of an abundant variety of beans, plain or re-fried, as well as avocadoes. If there is any meat, it is usually used as an ingredient and is always accompanied either by rice, potatoes or combined with a sauce or molé which can then be used as a filling for tamales or other corn-based staples.
There are hundreds of varieties of chillies available in this vast country: guajillos, pasillas, serranos, aguas, piquins, onzas, and the world famous habaneros, to name but a few. Among the red tomatoes and green tomatillos, the choices are equally impressive, which is why either one of these two ingredients is often the basis of most salsas. Combined with the various cooking techniques – roasting on coals on a comal (terra cotta flat stone), or directly in hot ashes – we recognized immediately that these are the foundations on which the taste and flavour profiles of the different salsas of Mexico are built. The grinding techniques too are instrumental to the final outcome of salsas because, ultimately, the texture of the sauce is one of the keys to the taste experience.
The simplest salsas are salsa frescas, which combine fresh chillies, garlic and/or onions, maybe tomatoes or tomatillos, salt and lime juice. These ingredients can simply be chopped up and literally thrown together. However, once we got beyond the standard, everyday offerings, we learned how more elaborate salsas rely on anecdotal accuracy, and traditional hand-grinding techniques. Recipes tested by time, and perfected by generations, always enchant and delight with their tastes, textures, refinement and amazing flavours.
Masa de chile seco is probably the most interesting salsa that we tasted in Oaxaca on this trip; making it, however, can be time consuming. Reputed to be one of the oldest recipes in the region, it’s a pesto-like sauce of dry, roasted shrimp, anise flavoured dried Herba Santa leaves, dry-roasted garlic cloves, and soaked guajillo chillies. These ingredients are finely ground individually on a stone metate (a raised, flat, granite mortar with an elongated pestle). The result is a thick paste which is absolutely exquisite and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Our hosts spread the salsa like butter on their tortillas then dipped and scooped their way through a simple and delicious meal.
A quick salsa that Celiflor made was salsa de pasilla de Oaxaca. She roasted the pasilla chillies in smouldering coals (a hot non-stick pan would do). Once done, she rinsed them in water and then added raw cloves of garlic and ground them on a metate (a blender could fill in here very nicely) along with the de-seeded pasillas. She then added a pinch of salt and continued grinding. This recipe only made us rekindle the love affair that began many years ago with this slowly smoked, slightly hot, flavourful, jewel of a chilli which is cultivated in the high Sierra Mountains and is unique to the state.
The salsas of Oaxaca, especially those made by the Zapotecs, are steeped in tradition and continue to be made with great respect for the old ways. Many households may have a blender, but the traditional mortar and pestle or a metate are the preferred implements of most conscientious cooks.
Ethné de Vienne was born in Trinidad, so spices and cooking have always been a part of her life. She worked in fashion for many years before finally building the renowned Montreal catering service with her husband Philippe. Today, as a full-time spice hunter, she takes great care in maintaining Épices de Cru’s relationships in its vast network of suppliers around the globe. She’ll never deny that any dish can be improved by a little cumin or zaatar, and probably a nice glass of rum!