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Salsa inglesa - A Mexican Sauce
Words by Giuseppe Lacorazza; Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee
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The goals of the food contingent at COP 26 last year were modest: transition global agriculture towards more sustainable, climate resilient systems, whilst, at the same time, ensure that these methods of farming are responsible for lower emissions and make it less likely that we’ll have to have another summit in Glasgow in 10 years time saying exactly the same thing. None of this was secured, but something else almost as important was discussed: the secret recipe of the soft drink Irn Bru.
You may vaguely remember this ─ Irn Bru kept being wheeled out as a form of soft diplomacy mostly to the bafflement of delegates. Only US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seemed to be game (she was handed one by Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon but you get the impression she would have snuck out to an offy if she hadn’t). Her video follows the front-facing phone camera format of most first-time-tasting Irn Bru YouTube videos, the reveal of the can to the camera, the shock of the first sip, the mentally scrabbling around for words to describe the taste. AOC, however, hits upon something that was completely surprising: the affinity of Irn Bru’s taste with something from her own childhood. “It tastes like Kola Champagne!”
Why did a Scottish and Puerto Rican soft drink taste similar? Scouring the internet I found that other people had made the same connection, if only in trying to describe the drinks (“bubblegum” and “fruit cream soda” comes up a lot for both ─ “like sucking off God” was only used for Irn Bru). This led me down a rabbit hole of British and Latin American soft drinks, discovering that the original Iron Brew essence was created by an American chemicals company, that the first Iron Brew was created by a British drinks company in Jamaica, that many Latin American soft drinks were created by British drinks manufacturers or people trying to compete with British ones. It appeared that not only was there a specific chemical accord these drinks shared, one that has now become a secret, but the movement of British industrialists heavily contributed to international soft drinks culture.
The result of my investigation is pending, but Giuseppe Lacorazza’s one is in and it’s a banger. It’s changed my view of British food culture ─ that in the same way a French chef with a huge toque was seen as the authority in cuisine, a British industrialist with a huge factory was once the authority in food manufacturing. Forget fish and chips, roast dinners and beans on toast ─ those are things only we eat and we deserve to be rinsed for it. But if you measure culture by what it inspires in others then it’s clear what the real British legacy on food culture is: Irn Bru, Twisters and salsa inglesa.
Salsa inglesa - A Mexican Sauce, by Giuseppe Lacorazza
Sit down to eat at a restaurant in Mexico City and you will find a recurrent topography: there are your freshly made salsas, maybe some lime wedges, raw onions or something pickled, and often a few bottled sauces – a family that includes El Yucateco, Valentina, Maggi, and a dark little dropper bottle filled with a sweet-and-sour brown sauce. This small bottle is among the most common sauces used in the kitchen, in preparations like petroleo, a jet-black concoction that is added to beers to make refreshing micheladas and clamatos (more on these later), as well as cubanas. It’s also used for dishes like aguachiles negros, which is a delicious plate of raw seafood pooling in chilli-lime water with cucumbers, red onions and other things, and good enough for a crippling hangover. It’s a favourite for topping raw clams and marinating grilled beef. Most bizarrely of all, people love to drench their pizzas with it.
This condiment is known as salsa inglesa, or ‘English sauce’, and if it tastes very much like Worcestershire sauce – well, that’s because it very much is Worcestershire sauce.
I was familiar with salsa inglesa before living in Mexico – it’s got the same name all over Latin America – but I had never seen it as prominently as I have here, cropping up in what I would consider unlikely settings and unlikely recipes. It struck me as an interesting anomaly: a brown British condiment holding its own in the land of colourful salsas. Yet it doesn’t feel like an intruder; more like a fully integrated expat.
I soon noticed that most people here only use Crosse & Blackwell or Lea & Perrins, two British brands which also have an industrial presence in the country – the former is produced in Nuevo León, the latter is bottled in Jalisco. But after doing some sleuthing I realised that there are also a lot of locally produced craft salsas inglesas around. I tried to write about them, but when I approached the producers they immediately rejected my requests to visit their kitchens and see how their sauces are made. I know the original recipe of the big brands is a closely guarded secret, but after two hundred years, even the people who copy it won’t share it. Why? We already know the main ingredients: tamarind, molasses, anchovies, onion, vinegar, cloves. I wondered if there was a bigger story here, a secret shared by all these salsas inglesas.
So I started an investigation.
Right from the start, the sauce’s story is packed with mystery and tight corners. In the early 1800s a fellow named Lord Sandys asked two chemists in Worcester – John Lea and William Perrins – to prepare a recipe for him based on a fish sauce he had tasted while serving in Bengal during the British Raj. They failed to deliver a satisfactory result, so the sauce was discarded and left to rot in a basement. The chemists retrieved it after a while and tried again; the ageing process had added a long, puckering savouriness and mellowed down the funky fish, giving it a pleasant taste.Who’s the originator? Who knows, but that’s how the first official Worcestershire sauce was born, even if, like all good stories, it’s probably not entirely true.
Since then, the sauce has been a British staple, used mainly, according to my British sources, to add piquancy to melted cheese on toast. Lea & Perrins also produced and distributed their sauce to great success, so much so that it became part of the diet of the Empire’s fleet exporting goods to the colonies. It was marketed as ‘the only good sauce’ and the recipe was kept a secret.
It seems that the enigmatic nature of the recipe accompanied the induction of the sauce into Mexican culture. I started to track down all the local brands I could; the first reply was from a guy called Franco, who makes a salsa inglesa in Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City, under the brand name Oviedo. He replied only to let me know that there was no space in his schedule to invite me over, or even to talk to me, but that I could buy a bottle of his sauce in La Merced, the huge ‘everything market’ downtown. So I went to La Merced and bought a big plastic bottle of Oviedo, complete with an orange label listing the ingredients: water, spices, salt, sodium benzoate. I went home, opened it and bam! the cap blew right off in my living room. Sauce all over the wooden floor. It was still fermenting; I still tried it, of course, but it wasn’t a good one. It smelled like inglesa, but tasted like muddy saltwater with a dash of onion and mustard powder. Not good for my tastebuds, my floor or my quest for answers.
The next clue came from Arturo Zacarías, who runs his family business, Chelamatic, in Puebla, south-east of the city. Chelamatic makes mixes for micheladas, those famous salt-rimmed beers with added lime juice and secret sauces, which include salsa inglesa; he created his own business because his wholesale clients wanted to buy a salsa inglesa along with their michelada mixes, of which, pre-pandemic, he could sell up to two tons during the Feria de Puebla. Arturo was more open and polite than Franco, answering my every question – but he still denied entrance to his kitchen. This time it wasn’t up to him – the sauce is produced at a local laboratory, much in the fashion of Lord Sandys, because they are able to emulsify it, stabilise it, and preserve it in a way he couldn’t, and the final recipe is only known by the lab folks. ‘I hope no one else knows it, although everyone in Mexico is susceptible to having their ideas stolen. Each [producer] has their own formula, but we all copy a little bit from each other’, he admitted.
Theft and forgery, however, are not just Mexican susceptibilities; they have been part of salsa inglesa’s history since the beginning. Late-nineteenth century British newspapers are full of adverts taken out by Lea & Perrins to warn against imitation sauces peddled by opportunists, but that didn’t stop Crosse & Blackwell, at that point one of the biggest wholesalers of Lea & Perrins, eventually copying the sauce and producing their own. To this day those two remain the most popular brands in Mexico and, continuing the tradition, the ones that Arturo used as his main source of inspiration.
Chelamatic is a bit stronger-tasting than the British brands, though. Lots of clove comes out of it, which Arturo confessed to using, and it’s sweet and sour with a savoury MSG depth. He disclosed a few of the key ingredients when I told him I wanted to try to make my own. ‘Protein is very important, as well as seasoning’, he said. ‘And you need a strong condiment: garlic, clove, black pepper, soy sauce, tamarind, even Tang works. People think it’s a simple recipe, but it’s not: it’s complicated and it has a lot of ingredients. Mine is tropicalised. It’s a Mexican sauce.’
This was the first time I ever thought of Worcestershire as a Mexican sauce. As a Latin American, it still feels counterintuitive to see British cultural traces so entangled in the foods of the region, but salsa inglesa is just a recent example in a long lineage of industrially produced British foods that switched home grounds across the Atlantic soon after the independence of the republics.
‘Superficially, Britain and Latin America appeared to be made for each other in the nineteenth century’, Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, former Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies of the University of London, writes. ‘With its strong manufacturing base, a consequence of nearly two centuries of industrial modernisation, Britain was well-placed to supply the newly independent countries with manufactured imports.’
These imports were mainly things like fabrics and railroad technology, and mostly arrived to Argentina and Brazil. However, some industrially made food and drink did percolate deeper into the continent, like my beloved childhood drink, Kola Román soda. Kola Román started because in 1865 a Colombian pharmaceutical heir named Carlos Román Polanco imported some carbonating machines from London to Cartagena. He was looking to compete with Kola Walter, a local brand made by a British family. His ruby-red soda became so immensely popular on the northern coast of Colombia that he crushed Kola Walter (this was a full two decades before Coca-Cola was even invented). Then there’s the story of Inca Kola, the Peruvian national drink started by a British immigrant called Joseph Robinson Lindley, or the pastes of the State of Hidalgo in Mexico, which were heavily influenced by the Cornish pasty recipes that arrived with British mine workers at the turn of the nineteenth century. Surely there are many more. I wondered when it was that Worcestershire sauce made its way into Mexico, and how.
My third clue arrived as a Facebook message from a brand called Inglesita, a ‘premium brand’, as they called themselves on their gold-and-black label that reminded me of a Guinness stout can. They replied to my approaches saying that they would be very happy to tell their story but that unfortunately I couldn’t come to Guadalajara, where they produce it. No reason, just not open to the public.
Flavourwise, Inglesita is a delight. It’s tangy and mildly sweet and not overly salty. It tastes of tamarind, black pepper, cinnamon and clove, with a hefty vinegar base. It’s made by two brothers, David and Sergio Camarena, who encouraged me to try making my own but, when asked about the recipe, revealed only what was already listed on the label: nineteen ingredients, including vinegar, cardamom, three types of peppercorn (tellicherry, muntok, and red), piloncillo (cooked down sugar cane syrup – to replace the original molasses), ginger, and white mustard.
The two reasons for starting Inglesita were the drudgery of the Camarenas’ daily jobs, and pizza. Unsatisfied with work and with what they were tasting in their Cross & Blackwell pizza-inglesa combo, they decided to solve both problems at the same time. They made a recipe of their own using only natural ingredients, no preservatives, and aged the sauce in former Tequila oak barrels. ‘How long we age it for is part of the big secret. It’s an important part of the original recipe and, although we are in Mexico, we wanted to create an authentic Worcestershire sauce. People love it and now we even export to the US. We make between four and five thousand litres a month.’ (Lea & Perrins’ own website says that the sauce is aged for eighteen months, so there’s no secret there.)
I asked Sergio how he incorporated the fish, and that was when things actually changed: Inglesita, he told me, didn't use fish. He said that the addition of fish made the sauce smell too strong, and the company thought the product would be more marketable if vegan. The lack of fish was intriguing, but after asking around it seemed that no one else in Mexico used it, either. Would that be the secret, or was it just a secret? Is it even a Worcestershire sauce if it’s made in Mexico, and without any fish? Maybe the secret is that there is no secret; or rules, for that matter.
By December, I had a whole new salsa inglesa pantry, a few open tabs on my computer, a stained floor, some history lessons, but no real revelations. I also had enough recipes to make my own salsa inglesa, but that wasn’t really the goal. I needed a breakthrough, an actual conclusion, or else: why was I here?
I was sent a lifeline by my friends Ixchel, Juan Carlos, and Jorja, who own a fermented products brand called Umani. They invited me to cook a small pop-up meal with them; I thought the change of mindset would help me stop thinking about salsa inglesa for a day. On a beautiful sunny afternoon, as I was grilling some shrimp over very hot coals, Jorja came over to offer me a drink. ‘Do you like clamato?’ she asked. I love clamato – the velvety drink of tomato, clam juice, lime, chilli and some sauces, plus beer over ice, is like a Bloody Mary but for a tropical beach. ‘We make our own clamato mix, with fermented tomatoes and our own salsa inglesa made with fish sauce to replace the clam juice.’ Whaaat? Jackpot!
I chased them for a couple of weeks until they finally invited me to come and see their sauce in its production state, (or so I had believed, at least). I went over to the apartment in Colonia Nápoles where they usually prepare and bottle kombuchas, vinegars, and cold brew coffee. We sat down and they presented me with a small bottle wrapped in wrinkly kraft paper, sealed with masking tape. It was their first bottled salsa inglesa, the one they used for my very thirst-quenching clamato. I tried it. It had a noticeably fishy background, with cloves and allspice ever present. It was not thick nor sweet like other ones I had tried, more savoury and sour, but not pungent, with a flatter landing on the tongue and a long, fruity aftertaste.
Ixchel explained that, according to their interpretation, salsa inglesa is a garum and vinegar-based aromatic maceration. They used inoculated koji to ferment their fish garum, which took six months. In the meantime they macerated two separate batches of aromatic compounds, one with a more traditional Worcestershire recipe (clove, apple cider vinegar, tamarind, molasses) and the other with lots of Mexican ingredients, like nanches (a strong cherry-like yellow fruit that is harvested in the fall), mandarins, mezcal vinegar, and four types of chilli (manzano and serrano, which are fresh, and pasilla and costeño ciruela, which are dry). Then they mixed the garum with the aromatics and let them rest for another few months. It was all made as a collaboration with another project called Sexto, a collective of cooks, designers, and scientists, who explore the intersection of food, culture, and science in Mexico.
They said it was a very volatile process, and that the sauce changed drastically along the way. ‘The more organic ingredients it has, [the] more enzymes and less stability’, Juan Carlos explained, adding that he didn’t see a wood barrel as a necessity, although he would like to have one. ‘It’s not as important as time. Time is the key ingredient.’
It was time as well (and a bit of corporate heft) that converted Worcestershire sauce into salsa inglesa. By 1960, British food conglomerates had become part of global ones, and the Swiss-owned giant Nestlé had acquired Maggi (of stock cube and sauce fame) and Crosse & Blackwell, pushing them to sell their cubes and condiments in African, Asian, and Latin American markets. Mexico was a big part of this plan – Nestlé’s sales strategy included publishing recipe books that used their low-cost and easy-to-use products, targeting cooks and housewives looking for efficiency. I tracked down a 1986 edition of Cocina con Maggi (‘Cooking with Maggi’) that heavily features Crosse & Blackwell across both Mexican and European recipes, which is also probably why salsa inglesa pairs in many recipes, like the petroleos and aguachiles, with salsa Maggi. Whatever Nestlé did, it worked – salsa inglesa is now part of the fabric of restaurants and home kitchens across Mexico.
The whole project got me thinking about volatility, as well as time, the universal stabiliser. Things almost never turn out quite the way one plans them, do they? It happens within recipes but also the context around them. I’m sure the people who came up with, and first commercialised, Worcestershire sauce back in nineteenth-century England never thought they were starting a food heritage that would spread all the way to Mexico, nor could they have predicted its usages. Here it is enjoyed the way all sauces are: you put them everywhere you can think of as long as the combination tastes good. You explore the possibilities you’re afforded. Worcestershire sauce in Mexico is Inglesa in the way it’s made, but not in the way it’s used. In that way it’s as Mexican as masa.
At the end of our interview, Juan Carlos brought me a little spoonful of another dark sauce. ‘We added some vinegar to the bottled one you tried before, for balance. This one is still resting untouched. It tasted very bitter last week, but today it’s pretty good.’ Finally! A salsa inglesa in its raw production state. I had reached the source. It was meaty- and fatty-smelling, like a bag of room-temp suet, and a lot saltier and more compact-tasting: it definitely needed the added vinegar at that point. While it was far from the traditionally produced Worcestershire sauces, where this all began, it was definitely salsa inglesa. Umani will call it salsa libre – free sauce. I imagine myself using it over some grilled meats and seasoning raw seafood with it. While Juan Carlos agrees with me on the meats, he won’t use it in anything else; he is more of a traditionalist. Jorja and Ixchel, on the other hand, swear it’s great on pizza.
Giuseppe Lacorazza is a cook and writer based in Mexico City. You can read him at Gula, a bi-weekly newsletter in Spanish that uses food to talk about life in Latin America.
The illustration is by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://www.natashaphangleeillustration.com
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits.