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Breaking the Code to Salsa’s Creation & Its Spicy Popularity

To break the code to salsa’s start, you need to trace its existence back thousands of years to its creation—we’re talking pre-1500s era. As far as salsa’s popularity, “thanks” are due to the people who started it and the pop culture that carried it. The dictionary says this “usually spicy” sauce is “commonly served with Mexican food” but how did salsa outgrow these bland descriptions and come into its own to become as ubiquitous in today’s cuisine as any other condiment? Read on for the full, spicy scoop on how salsa was created in the New World and what’s keeping this sauce a popular choice in today’s world. 

The Start of Salsa & Its Rise to Fame

Decoding the start of salsa takes a little finesse, but its rise in popularity traces back as far as the 1500s and continues even today. While that seems like forever ago (it kind of was), it took even longer for someone to name this fiery, delicious “everything” condiment as “salsa” (which translates to “sauce”), so it’s safe to assume its early, immediate popularity experienced a delay. 

The Creation of Salsa

Salsa was first created by the people of Central America, namely the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas who inhabited the land. The Mayans didn’t know they had invented the next-big-thing, they were simply flavoring their venison, lobster, and other main entrees with the flavors they had readily available—tomatoes, chilies, and squash seeds. 

Unlike the salsa we know today that’s full of chunks and texture, the early salsa was pulverized. They ground the ingredients in a mortar and pestle, creating a sauce-like condiment with a creamy mouthfeel. When the Spaniards conquered Mexico, salsa was introduced to a new audience who embraced it and added their own influences, including the onions and garlic that we recognize today.

The Rise of Salsa’s Modern Popularity

Fast forward to the 1980s and the popularity of salsa heats up. Busy households were demanding more convenient foods, and many cuisines once considered “cultural” were now easily accessible via the frozen food aisle and fast food drive through windows. Taco sauce, hot sauce, and, of course, salsa were now available in every grocery store. At long last, salsa was available to the masses and was used as a dip, a burrito ingredient, and taco topper.

Cult-Like Mexican Food Following

Salsa’s next jump into the mainstream involved a certain taco giant’s tie-in with the blockbuster film “Demolition Man”. This was among the first major marketing ploys putting together a superhero and a restaurant franchise, and it brought Mexican food and its saucy condiment to the forefront. Driven by this publicity, salsa of all varieties saw its sales increase from the eighties to nineties, joining the ranks of other sodas and novelty snacks powered by brand marketing. The instant recognition of a major Mexican food brand led to late-night snacking and a cult-like following that continues across college campuses today.

6 Reasons Why Salsa’s Popularity Is Still Growing

If the rise to fame for salsa sounds dramatic, it was. Its following continues to impress us, with countless new uses and twists on this classic condiment. We attribute salsa’s enduring presence in the polls of popularity to the following:

  • Salsa Is Homegrown Culinary Eye-Candy

Salsa is one of the few recipes where every ingredient can originate in your own backyard from start to fiery finish. Tomatoes and peppers are the most popular backyard garden vegetables because they are easy to grow in many varieties, colors, and sizes. The bright yellow, green, and red fruits push salsa past “just” a condiment and on to an eye-candy toppings for decadent dishes with pops of brightness, sweet tomato flavor, and  jalapeño heat. More ambitious gardeners can even foray into growing their own garlic, onions, and other succulent add-ins. Salsa and all its homegrown parts are loved for their “from scratch” renditions that always look tempting and taste amazing. 

  • Salsa Supports Health Kicks

We’ve all been there: you’re on a health kick and looking for something flavorful to make whatever pseudo-meal in front of you taste delicious without adding calories, when it clicks: Salsa. This super sauce brings spice, vibrance, and freshness to any dish, and because it is all about the veggies, it’s full of potassium, an alphabet’s worth of vitamins, plus lycopene (whatever that is). Just check out these health benefits of salsa—warning: the list is long. When the diet-fad masses of the early 1980s caught wind of this super-healthy concoction masquerading as a condiment, its popularity soared. Today, it remains on the list of nutrition necessities for weightlifters, scale-watchers, and booty busters.

  • Salsa Supports Non-Health Kicks

And, for the other half who haven’t yet joined the ranks of the health-conscious crowd, salsa is still your go-to for a good spicing and excellent snack topping. This super sauce is a willing passenger on any junk food vehicle you can imagine (aka tortilla chips, nachos, pizza)...and not because it is nutritional, but because it is a spicy, zesty, and sometimes sweet addition to any fried entree. Bring cheese-covered chips and cream cheese dips to the next level with flavor improvements courtesy of your favorite medium heat salsa and it’ll never fail to kick start some major snacking and lip smacking.

  • Salsa Varieties are Endless-ly Popular

Like the customs from its origin story, salsa’s mega popularity wouldn’t be so hot if everyone was eating the exact same sauce. The Mayans didn’t sauce like the Spaniards, and you probably don’t sauce like your grandparents. The Great Migration of salsa likely met many iterations, shaping it into a curried salsa  with India-inspired spices, a salad-like invention with black beans and corn or a triple-x hot that’s NSFW (not safe for wimps). Not only does its evolution prove what a juggernaut salsa is, but you can totally find the right custom flavor for any food you’re dousing or dunking. Whether you’re making your own fresh-picked sauce or counting on your favorite Fruit Salsa to brighten a chicken salad, the endless varieties and cultural takes keep salsa super popular.

  • Salsa’s BFFs Are Your Favorite Foods 

You can’t count salsa out, ever, because it is a mainstay in the trifecta of Mexican food must-haves (aka tacos, burritos, and nachos). These salsa besties would be nowhere without their smokin’ hot sidekick. People have been stuffing their faces with nachos since they came on the scene in the 1940s and you can bet they were originally topped with a fresh, fiery pico so delicious that this chip mountain became a staple for appetizer menus everywhere. It’s simple math: Salsa is the flavor behind the best Mexican food, giving it the kick you crave in every popular dish.

  • Salsas Are Competition Food

Food challenges (how much can you eat, how hot can you handle, how fast will you finish…) became popular in the early 2000s, and changed how we eat (or try to eat). Salsa is an excellent meter for these contests because its hot, hotter-yet, and hot-like-whoa levels play into our obsessive need to combine food and competition. Showing they can “handle it” pushes contestants’ bounds for how much heat they can swallow before reaching for the milk. There are also contests for making salsa—today’s version of a bake-off—even though it requires zero cooking (PS we win this every time!). Whether it's at a state fair or an office breakroom, holding the title of Best Salsa is a hot commodity. Truth is, everyone loves salsa because there’s nothing better than the camaraderie of a bunch of chiliheads trying to outdo each other to win the ultimate pride-prize and I-told-you-so rights.

There’s No Peak to Salsa’s Popularity

Unlike most fads from the pre-2000s, salsa’s popularity didn’t peak, dip, or drop. It’s available in (literally) any grocery or convenience store. It’s continuously scooped onto every traditional Mexican food and its Americanized rendition proving this fiery concoction isn’t going anywhere. Salsa has a permanent spot on the fiery throne of popularity with the most popular sauces.
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