Salsa means “sauce” in Spanish, but it took me little time to realise these complex, delicious sides are a superfood steeped in culture, and integral to Mexican cuisine. Every restaurant and street vendor I stopped into for a bite offered a rainbow of salsas, and I had to know more.
By
3 Mar 2014 - 2:34 PM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2014 - 1:11 PM

Many salsas are made from just a few ingredients that are available to every home cook in Mexico – chillies, tomatoes, onions and garlic – with an incredible range of textures and flavours developing during preparation. Salsas are almost always hot, and are typically made with either fresh or dried chilies – not both. There are literally hundreds of varieties of chilli peppers in Mexico. For salsas, “fresh” chillies often means serrano, habanero, japaleño or poblano; and “dried” may be cascabel, guajillo, morita, ancho or chipotle. These range in heat from a mild mouth tickle to an ear-popping tongue bomb. They can be raw (cruda) or cooked (cocina). Cocina salsas may be used as sauces or for cooking other dishes, whereas cruda salsas are the ones that can really blow your head off.

The next time you go to a Mexican restaurant and they serve you “salsa” and chips, you’re probably getting a toned-down version of “pico de gallo”, often not very spicy and more about the tomatoes and onions. Try asking your waiter a few questions, see if there’s a true Mexican in the kitchen; if there is, ask him to send you a real salsa.

Another ingredient I began to spot everywhere is amaranth, a superfood seldom found in Western cooking.

Amaranth has been used in Mexico since the time of the Incas. The Aztecs called it “huautli” and it made up about 80 per cent of their diet. The Spanish banned the cultivation and use of amaranth for hundreds of years due to its use in Aztec sacrifices. The grain is high in protein, gluten-free, easily cultivated and simple to cook, and it is used throughout Mexican cooking in everything from breads to desserts. It can also be found by different names in the cuisines of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Fiji, China, Greece and Africa. You can find amaranth in Australia, and in most countries, at health food stores. Next time you’re making cereal, bread or a recipe calling for a gluten-free grain, give amaranth a try.

Mexic-OH! fact When eaten regularly, amaranth seeds and oils have been shown to reduce blood pressure and high cholesterol, and defend against cardiovascular disease.

Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita airs Thursdays 7.30pm on SBS ONE.