Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce and has its origins in Central America. It was thought that Salsa was first used by the Incas, but the Aztecs and Mayans also used it at least as far back as the 1500s. Salsa back then consisted of a combination of chilies, tomatoes, and other ingredients, such as squash seeds, which were available at the time. It was used as a condiment which people would put on their food to give it flavor and spiciness.
Chilies, one of the main ingredients of most salsas, have been around for quite some time, becoming domesticated in Central America around 5200 B.C. Tomatoes, another ingredient, and used as the base for most salsas, also have a long history of being grown in Central America, becoming domesticated around 3000 B.C. Tomatoes are native to western South America and Central America and were first brought back to Europe by the Spanish because they looked good in their gardens, and not for eating purposes. Over time Europeans began cultivating tomatoes for consumption and they have been a staple in many European countries ever since.
The rest of the world first learned about the use of Salsa from the writings of Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan missionary who lived among the Aztecs after they were conquered in 1529 by Hernando Cortes. For over 60 years de Sahagun compiled a body of work about his experiences among the Aztecs. When his Florentine Codex was finally published, it documented many things about Aztec life, including every food common to their culture, along with its method of preparation. This included salsa.
The use of salsa didn’t begin to spread outside of Central America until the Spaniards arrived and conquered Mexico, between 1519 and 1521. However, salsa wasn’t called salsa back then. It wasn’t until 1571, that Alonso de Molina, a Spanish priest, missionary, and grammarian gave it this simple name.
Even though the United States is in close proximity to Central America, and has geographical and melting-pot commonalities with that area, salsa, and hot sauces were not popular in the U.S. until after the mid-1800s. In fact, hot sauce wasn’t commercially introduced as a food product in the U.S. until 1807 when cayenne peppers were processed into a sauce and bottled in Massachusetts. Nothing much happened until six decades later when, in 1868, Edmund McIlhenny made a sauce from aged Tabasco peppers, packaged it in used cologne bottles, and sent it to prospective buyers. His Tabasco sauce proved to be a tremendous hit and started a competitive wave of hot sauce products.