Expect a heat wave as salsa front moves in WHATS HOT WHAT'S NOT

January 19, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Is salsa hot stuff these days? You bet your sweet chipotle it is.

With hundreds of brands on shelves at grocery stores and gourmet markets, with sales in the hundreds of millions, this newly popular dip/condiment/cooking ingredient is hot, hot, hot.

"Salsa in general has become one of the biggest items we have," says Janis Talbott of Morton's, the Mount Vernon gourmet food and spirits shop. "It even outsells peanuts, which I think is saying a lot."

"Last year salsa outsold ketchup in gross sales -- so it's become the top-selling condiment in the country," says Daniel Wimer, general manager of Some Like It Hot, a mail-order firm that sells a variety of hot sauces. The firm -- based in Lancaster, Pa., -- also has a small chain of market-based stands. One stand (which, Mr. Wimer says, sell "basically anything with chili peppers") is in the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace.

"I can't begin to imagine how many salsas there are in the United States right now," says Doug Foreman, president of Guiltless Gourmet of Austin, Texas. Why is it so popular? "I think more and more people are just willing to try new things, for one, and there's the popularity that Southwest and Mexican foods are enjoying across the country right now," Mr. Foreman says.

"I think that a lot of it has to do with people looking for something that's more of a healthy-type snack," says Dave Hume of Green Mountain Gringo, Chester, Vt. "It has all the qualities of junk food, but it's not junk food." Mr. Hume's Down East hot salsa won first place last week in a Sun taste-off of 25 salsas found at local grocery and gourmet stores.

According to Information Resources, Inc., a marketing-research company based in Chicago, U.S. consumers bought $632 million worth of Mexican sauces, including salsas and taco sauces, last year. And sales are expected to continue to heat up, Mr. Wimer says, with growth anticipated at 30 to 40 percent in the next five years.

What are people doing with all that salsa?

"Most people use it as a dip," Mr. Wimer says. "But what we're finding more and more is salsa is great for culinary uses. You can add it to spaghetti sauce, for a little bit different flavor, or use it over fish or chicken. You can mix it with sour cream for a really wonderful dip. And it's great over hamburgers or grilled chicken. We recommend people really experiment with it."

"Salsa is not just a Mexican food," says Dan Jardine, "head honcho" of Jardine's Texas Foods of Buda, Texas. "It's a condiment, a snack and a dip with some Mexican heritage." The company produces several lines of sauces, chili mixes and condiments with Texas flavors. He suggests using the company's D. L. Jardine's Salsa Bobos, which ranked fourth in the taste test, over salad or baked potatoes.

Newly popular it may be, but Mexican hot sauces have been around for a while. "We started bottling Pace Picante Sauce in 1947," says Matt Mohr, spokesman for Pace Foods Ltd. of San Antonio. In those days, the thinner "picante" sauce was preferred, because people mostly used it for cooking. "In the '40s and '50s, dipping with chips was not all that common."

Then people discovered how much a dip into the hot sauce could improve a corn chip and the product took off. Today, the culinary adaptability of salsa is once again coming to the fore.

Mr. Mohr doesn't think there's any mystery in the steady rise of salsa. "For one thing, it's a very healthy product," he says. "There's no fat, and only 6 1/2 calories per serving. And jalapenos are very high in vitamin C. There's more vitamin C in a jalapeno pepper than in an orange, did you know that?" He concedes people don't always eat their salsa with other healthful

ingredients.

Flavor favorite

"But the biggest reason is flavor," he says. "For some reason, when you blend tomatoes, onions, and chilies, people just like it. It's very versatile."

Salsa is a relatively simple concoction: tomatoes, onion, green chilies, and cilantro are basics; lime juice and garlic are common items. The heat comes from jalapeno peppers most commonly, but some salsas use the hotter serrano or chipotle -- the the hot, hot habanero -- varieties. Some producers add more exotic ingredients -- raspberries, peaches, black-eyed peas -- and the chili heat varies widely. Some salsas contain corn. "People aren't used to seeing corn, but that's a more traditional salsa," Mr. Wimer says.

"In Mexico, people have been perking things up with salsas since long before Columbus," writes Reed Hearon, the California-based chef and author of "Salsa" (Chronicle Books, 1993, $12.95). "And when Cortez and the Spaniards came, Mexicans discovered that salsas livened up all the Old World products like chicken, pork, beef, lamb and cheese, too."

With a dozens or more brands to choose from at any given market, how's a salsa novice to choose? Are the salsas all that different? Well, yes. Some are about as exciting as ketchup, and some are hot without being tasty. But some do fulfill the promise of zesty, mouth-filling taste.

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