Some people see a hot sauce on the table and think of it as if it were akin to a bottle of salt or one of ketchup, just a condiment. But they are much more than that. As Gonzalo Guzmán recently wrote, the sauce can tell you much about the skill and technique of the kitchen as well as the background and experience of the chef.
Whether ajies or chiles, hot peppers are one of the bases, the mothers, of food in Indoamerica. In traditional Peru, food is uchu, spicy. It tends to be made with aji and then other things.
A good salsa lifts the meal, it raises what may already be good and makes it divine. Far from an afterthought as in the Euroamerican mind, it is key. In Inca thought, to fast is to abstain from hot pepper and from salt. They alone make food, food.
So many variables go into making a good sauce, from the specific hot peppers you choose—as a vendor of chiles told me today in the San Juan Market in Mexico City, “in chiles there is a world of different flavors”— other ingredients and their quality, how you process them, and to what you do with them once made. Each choice leaves notes that can make a simple sauce richly complex.
Each kind of pepper and each individual pepper has different flavors.
Outsiders often think of peppers according to where they fall on the scale of heat, while insiders tend to think of them according to palettes of colors and of flavors. Some, like the aji panca–the red ají of Peru, or the various chiles of Oaxaca, taste like a compendium of spices, while others, such as cayenne, are one-note wonders; in this case pure heat. When I say color, I mean color both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because peppers come in ranges of reds, yellows, and greens, with a few very dark, almost black ones. Metaphorically, because peppers have very different flavors from simple to complex, from almost single notes to ones that taste more complex than a good curry powder. In using them, you have a combination of flavors and tones that allows you to be very creative.
I recently had a canary yellow sauce that was jewel-like in its intensity and simple-noted but delicious in its flavor. In its beauty and simplicity, it was used to accompany fresh vegetables and flowers. I asked and was told it was made from canario peppers, what is also called manzano peppers. They are a variety of one of the least common pepper species around the world, the pubescens, and are very closely related to the Peruvian rocoto. In Peru, they tend to mostly red while in Mexico they tend to be yellow.
This sauce was mild and had a delicate flavor although it seemed to be straight cooked, probably boiled peppers. In Peru, they make sauce from pure rocotos but they seem to have an almost hormonal muskiness and a piney note, at the same time they are very hot. This is a case of the selection of peppers over time for cultivation, leading to differences in the same species and the same variety.
I have had a similar pure yellow, but fiery, hot sauce in Peru. This one, besides its heat, had strong citrus notes. At breakfast, I laved it on my scrambled eggs and my bread but did not know what it was or how it was made until one morning the door to the hostal’s kitchen was open and I saw the preparation. The cook pulled bright yellow limo peppers out of boiling water and put them in a blender. Peppers and peppers alone. He did not even seed them. A few pulses and a thick sauce of sunflower yellow came forth. He added a bit of salt, one more pulse, and served it still warm. It was better at room temperature, but for me, that was an aha moment.
A similar aha moment struck me in Oaxaca, Mexico recently the day I arrived. My friend and I were famished after a whole day of travel from the US and we went to a simple place offering Oaxaca food and pulque, a native beer made from agave, the raw material for mescal. The waiter, perhaps owner, brought two sauces to the table first, along with some dry toasted, blue tortilla tostadas. One sauce was red and the other green, in inevitable reference to the Mexican national colors. I slathered some of each on a tostada, not being able to wait for my quesadilla, and dug in. The red was not all that hot but was like a finely crafted combination of spices, such as harissa. The green was, simply, a revelation. The quesadilla with huitlacoche, a corn-fungus, was wonderful. Handmade blue, elongated tortilla, Oaxaca quesillo—a farmer’s cheese, and lightly sautéed huitlacoche still tasting lightly of corn. It alone was heavenly, but with either of the sauces, it became angelic.
I asked. The red sauce’s secret was indigenous chiles from Oaxaca with their inherent complexity. The green sauce was simply cilantro, tomatillo, and habanero peppers. Yet I was amazed. The sauce had an herbal flavor, a darkness and even smoky notes that simply did not go with those ingredients in my experience. I knew the sauce was made in a mortar and pestle, a molcajete, which does help explain some of its flavor, as would a Peruvian batán–a grinding stone. You simply get better flavor with hand grinding than you do in a blender. But there was more. The quality and rich flavor of local ingredients, as well as their balance, gave this sauce its amazing flavor which I will never forget.
In Peru, they also make wonderful green sauces, though they do not use the tomatillo. Instead, their sauces stem from cilantro or from an indigenous herb, huacatay. In their case as well as that of Oaxaca, the quality of ingredients used and the palette of peppers makes them alone a menu of different flavors and complexities.
In sum, the diversity of hot sauces really do create a world and when well done, the hot sauce–along with the food you put it on–rises to the divine.