u_topn picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Sidebar -- "Salsa Without Tears", October 1996



YUCATECANS LIVE in a tasty world of bright flavors. The natural sweetness of ripe tomatoes invigorated with the ignitable potential of habanero, the aroma of cilantro, the zing of sour orange or lime, and the resonant crunch of raw radish and onion. That's xnipec (say "shnee-pek," Mayan for "nose of the dog" the books say, refraining from further comment). If you leave out the tomatoes, most Yucatecans call the resulting mix salpicón, an enlivened sprinkle for their otherwise quite simply flavored fare. I doubt you'd think of the tomatoless version as a salsa (especially one for chips), but its possibilities as a relish are numerous. Either version is essential in my kitchen to accompany anything flavored with achiote.


  • 1 small (4-ounce) red onion
  • 2 tablespoons fresh sour orange or lime juice
  • 10 ounces (2 small round or 3 or 4 plum) ripe tomatoes
  • 6 radishes
  • 1/2 to 1 whole fresh habanero chile, depending on your personal attraction to the "burn"
  • A dozen or so large sprigs of cilantro
  • Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon

Very finely chop the onion with a knife (a food processor will make it into a quickly souring mess), scoop it into a strainer and rinse under cold water. Shake off as much water as possible, then transfer to a small bowl and stir in the juice to "deflame" the onion's pungency. Set aside while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

Core the tomatoes, then cut them crosswise in half and squeeze out the seeds if you want (it'll make the sauce seem less rustic). Finely dice the tomatoes by slicing them into roughly 1/4-inch pieces, then cutting each slice into small dice. Scoop into a bowl. Slice the radishes 1/16 inch thick, then chop into matchsticks or small dice. Add to the tomatoes. Carefully cut out and discard the habanero's seed pod (wear rubber gloves if your hands are sensitive to the piquancy of the chiles), mince the flesh into tiny bits, and add to the tomatoes. Bunch up the cilantro sprigs, and, with a very sharp knife, slice them 1/16 inch thick, stems and all, working from the leafy end toward the stems.

Combine radishes, chile, and chopped cilantro with the tomato mixture, stir in the onion and juice mixture, taste and season with salt, and it's ready to serve in a salsa dish for spooning onto tacos, grilled fish, and the like.

ADVANCE PREPARATION -- The salsa is best within a few hours of its completion, and be forewarned that the longer it sits, the more picante it will seem.

OTHER CHILES YOU CAN USE -- Jalapeños and serranos (3 to 5) can replace the habanero. Manzano chiles (1/2 to 1) also would taste good in this salsa.


Spicy Chicken Salad -- Mix cubed cooked chicken (try smoked chicken for even more flavor) with mayonnaise until you get the chicken salad as moist as you like it. Stir in salsa a spoonful at a time (draining off as much liquid as possible) until the salad is spicy and nicely flavored. Diced jícama adds a nice crunch; a little more cilantro adds liveliness.

Seafood or Asparagus Salad -- As a substantial appetizer for four, very briefly boil 1 pound of shrimp or steam 1 pound of asparagus until tender; cool. Mix 2 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil with 2 tablespoons sour orange or lime juice, stir in a cup or so of the salsa and taste for salt (it should be a little salty). For seafood: Combine salsa and cooked seafood, and let stand an hour or so, stirring regularly, before serving on a bed of sliced lettuce. For asparagus: Divide the asparagus among 4 lettuce-lined plates and spoon the salsa mixture over them. You may want a little extra chopped cilantro.

Seared Fish with Tangy Habanero -- In a large, heavy skillet filmed with oil, sear 4 fish fillets over medium-high heat until brown on both sides. Remove from the pan, add the salsa and stir until wilted and the liquid reduces. Stir in 1/4 to 1/3 cup of heavy cream or crème fraiche, then nestle the fish back in the pan. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the fish barely flakes. Transfer to dinner plates. If the sauce is thinner than you'd like, boil it briskly to reduce, then spoon over the fillets.

Copyright © 1996 by Rick Bayless. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search