Ten years ago, few Americans had ever tasted salsa. Today, we can't seem to live without it. Originally made with tomatoes, salsas today come in a myriad of flavors, including mango, papaya and kiwi fruit.

Once the province of humble Tex-Mex eateries, salsas are turning up at our most respected and fashionable restaurants. At the other end of the spectrum, they've been embraced by innovative back-yard chefs to enliven their repertoire of grilling favorites.

Salsa, of course, is a quick, fresh sauce that originated in Mexico. (The term also refers, appropriately, to a lively style of Hispanic music and the animated dance that goes with it.) The basic ingredients are tomatoes, onions, chilies, lime juice and cilantro. Traditionally, they are pounded together in a molcajete (a mortar and pestle made of black basalt).

In Mexico the ingredients vary from chef to chef and region to region; one cook might use yellow tomatoes, another might add a splash of tequila. In the Yucatan, fiery habanero chilies are used in place of jalapenåos. But whatever the ingredients, the virtues of salsa -- its simplicity, its freshness, its spontaneity -- remain the same.

Nontraditional "salsas are a great way to sauce seafood and other delicate fare without overpowering them," says Mark Militello of the acclaimed Mark's Place restaurant in Miami. Whole grilled snapper with a nightly changing salsa has become the signature dish of his restaurant. Recent creations have included mango-starfruit salsa, papaya-pineapple salsa and even a Mediterranean salsa flavored with basil, olives and capers.

Elsewhere in the country, Mark Miller of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe prides himself on his tamarind-banana salsa. Chris Schlesinger of Boston's East Coast Grill serves an electrifying mango and rocotillo chili salsa with grilled shrimp.

Salsa is a great way to provide lots of flavor with a minimum of fat. And most salsas require no cooking -- a boon to the summertime cook. The ingredients are limited only by one's imagination and can be chopped in as much time as it takes to turn on the food processor.

For heightened interest, one can vary the texture from the smooth sauce-like salsas found in most Mexican restaurants to coarse, chunky salsas that are reminiscent of salads. Because they're served cool, salsas are always refreshing -- even when they're loaded with chilies.

The basic flavor components of salsa are tartness, hotness, and pungency.

The tartness is usually provided by lime juice, but one can also use lemon or grapefruit juice, tamarind paste, a wide variety of vinegars, or a combination of these ingredients. Many chefs add a sweet ingredient, like brown sugar or fruit, to balance the acidity.

The hotness is supplied by a chili, usually a serrano or jalapenåo. As a general rule, the thinner the skin on the chili, the hotter its bite. The seeds are the hottest part of any chili, so you may wish to leave them out. When handling chilies, be aware that they can burn the skin. (When working with super-hot chilies, like scotch bonnets, you may wish to wear rubber gloves.) Other sources of hotness for salsas include ginger, garlic, horseradish and peppercorns.

Onion and cilantro are added to make the salsa aromatic. The eye-stinging pungency of the former can be mellowed by rinsing it under cold water. (You can also use scallions or shallots.) When cilantro is unavailable, I've made excellent salsas with fresh mint.

"A good salsa is a symphony of contrasting flavors," says Militello. "It will be sweet from the fruit or sugar, sour from the lime juice or vinegar, hot from the chili, pungent from the onion and aromatic from cilantro or other herbs." When making salsas, Militello tries to balance the tartness of the lime juice with the sweetness of the fruit, the spiciness of the chili with the fragrance of the herbs.

Salsa is the perfect accompaniment to grilled seafood and meats. The recipes below range from the traditional to the exotic.

SALSA FRESCA (Fresh Tomato Salsa) (Makes 1 cup)

This is the basic salsa served in Mexico with tortilla chips. The proportion of chilies increases as you head south. For an offbeat twist, make the salsa with yellow tomatoes.

2 ripe tomatoes

1 to 2 serrano or jalapenåo chilies

2 scallions

1 clove garlic

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro (coriander leaf)

Juice of 1 to 2 limes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Stem the tomatoes and cut in half horizontally. Squeeze the tomatoes to wring out the seeds. Seed and mince the chilies. Finely chop the scallions. Mince the garlic. Finely chop the cilantro.

Coarsely chop the tomatoes in the food processor. Work in the remaining ingredients. Correct the seasoning, adding lime juice, salt or pepper. I like salsa to be a little coarse, but you could also pure'e it to a smooth paste.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 21 calories, 1 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, .2 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 8 mg sodium.


This offers a Mediterranean twist on a Mexican favorite. It's delicious with whole grilled snapper. The recipe comes from Mark Militello, owner-chef of Mark's Place in Miami.

2 ripe red tomatoes

1 ripe yellow tomato (or another red tomato)

1/2 yellow bell pepper

12 fresh basil leaves

1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley

1/3 cup Greek olives

3 tablespoons capers, drained

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Juice of 1 lime or to taste

Salt, freshly ground black pepper and cayenne pepper

Peel and seed the tomatoes and dice. Core, seed, and dice the pepper. Wash, dry, and coarsely chop the basil and parsley. Pit the olives.

Combine all the ingredients in a glass bowl and mix. Correct the seasoning, adding pepper or balsamic vinegar as necessary. You probably won't need much salt, as the olives and capers are already quite salty.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 126 calories, 1 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 213 mg sodium.


This salsa was inspired by som tam, Thailand's famous green papaya salad. Dried shrimp and fish sauce are available at most Asian markets.

1 cucumber

1 small bunch seedless red grapes (1 1/2 cups)

3 tablespoons peanuts

1 to 2 hot chilies

1 small clove garlic

3 to 4 dried shrimp (optional)

1 teaspoon chopped cilantro root, stems, or leaves

2 teaspoons fish sauce

Juice of 1 lime or to taste

1/2 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Peel the cucumber and cut it in half lengthwise. Use a melon baller to remove the seeds, and cut the cucumber into 1/4-inch dice. Wash and stem the grapes and cut each in half. Coarsely chop the peanuts and lightly toast in a hot oven or under a broiler.

Coarsely chop the chilies, garlic, dried shrimp and cilantro. Place these ingredients in a mortar and pestle and pound to a smooth paste. Gradually pound in the fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. Correct the seasoning, balancing the saltiness of the fish sauce, the tartness of the lime juice, and the sweetness of the sugar. The ingredients could be combined in a blender.

Just before serving, toss the cucumbers and grapes with the lime mixture. Sprinkle with the mint and the peanuts and serve at once.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 39 calories, 1 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, .3 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 88 mg sodium.

MANGO SALSA (Makes 2 cups)

This goes well with grilled chicken and fish. When buying mangoes, look for fruit with a blush of yellow or red on the skin and flesh that feels soft and yielding. Avoid mangoes with shriveled skin or brown spots, or fruit that is hard or green. Fiery scotch bonnet chilies can be found at Latin American markets; if unavailable use another type of hot chili.

2 ripe mangoes

1 cucumber

1 scotch bonnet chili or jalapenåo chili

1 inch piece of fresh ginger root

2 scallions

1 small bunch cilantro (about 1/2 cup chopped)

Juice of 2 to 3 limes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon brown sugar (optional)

Peel the mangoes with a paring knife. Cut the flesh off the flat seed and cut the mango into 1/4-inch dice. Peel the cucumber and cut it in half lengthwise. Use a melon baller to remove the seeds, and cut the cucumber into 1/4-inch dice. Cut the chili in half, discard the seeds, and mince. (It's a good idea to wear gloves when handling chilies.) Mince the ginger. Finely chop the scallions, using both the white and green part. Coarsely chop the cilantro.

Combine the ingredients in a bowl. Mix in lime juice, salt, pepper and sugar to taste.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 45 calories, .7 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, .2 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 mg sodium.

PINEAPPLE SALSA (Makes 2 cups)

Here's another unusual salsa for grilled poultry or seafood. It's important to use fresh pineapple. To check a pineapple for ripeness, smell the bottom. It should be fresh and fruity, but not be too soft.

1 small pineapple

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

1 fresh poblano chili or green bell pepper

1 to 2 fresh jalapenåo or serrano chilies (or to taste)

1 small red onion

1 bunch fresh cilantro leaf

Juice of 1 to 2 limes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon brown sugar (optional)

Cut the rind off the pineapple and remove the core. Cut the fruit into 1-inch pieces. Core and seed the peppers and poblano chili and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Seed and mince the jalapenåos. Finely dice the onion. Wash and coarsely chop the cilantro, discarding the stems.

Not more than 1 hour before serving, combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Add additional lime juice, salt, pepper, and sugar, as needed, to taste.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 25 calories, 1 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, .3 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 mg sodium.

Steven Raichlen is a freelance food writer and director of his own cooking school in New Hampshire.