Aztecs, Mayas and Incas reportedly used combinations of chiles, tomatoes and spices for thousands of years to flavor foods like fish, turkey, venison or lobster.  Knowledge of these condiments didn’t spread beyond Central America until the Spanish Conquest of Mexico (1519 to 1521).  In 1571 a Spanish priest and missionary named the concoctions salsa, the Spanish word for sauce.

Salsa certainly has moved well beyond Central America since.  It now combines new world ingredients (chiles, tomatillos and tomatoes) with old world produce (onions and garlic).  Beginning in the mid 1800s, spicy foods and hot sauces gained popularity in Texas and the American southwest and gradually spread throughout the United States.  Salsa became so ubiquitous that, by 1992, the dollar value of jarred salsa sales in the U.S. exceeded that of ketchup.

The consistency of salsa can vary from a smooth puree to a chunky amalgam of diced ingredients.  Some are cooked (colida), which gives them a savory tomato flavor, while others. like firey pico de gallo (rooster’s beak), are served diced and raw (cruda)Salsas generally are served at room temperature and, in the United States at least, tortilla chips are a standard accompaniment to salsas as appetizers in Mexican restaurants.  This is less the case in Mexico.  The traditional salsa making tool is a molcajete, a mortar and pestle carved from rough lava stone, although blenders often are used today.

The World Health Organization recommends careful preparation and storage of salsas, since cruda varieties can serve as growth mediums for potentially dangerous bacteria.  In 2010, the American Center for Disease Control reported that 1 in 25 foodborne illnesses were traced back to restaurant salsas between 1998 and 2008.   The importance of refrigerated storage was stressed, and the presence of fresh lime juice and fresh garlic (but not powdered garlic) also are known to prevent salmonella.