As Mexican condiments go, salsa and guacamole get most of the attention. But chamoy, lesser-known in the north, might be more important. This fruit-based sauce is sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and muy picante, all at once, a complete flavor that goes with everything. It embodies a certain boldness that’s common in Mexican food.
Guided by tradition but not bound to it, Mexican cuisine is alive, evolving, and exciting, varying by region yet interconnected by an ethos that finds it perfectly sensible to, say, unroll a tamale onto a hot dog bun. Indeed, chamoy is laden with history as well as pizzazz. It’s a legacy of a small Japanese Mexican population that also brought us maggi, aka Mexican soy sauce. Originally made with salted Japanese plums called ume, chamoy is now made with dried prune plums and apricots, and comes in dried fruit, candy, and sauce forms.
Whatever chamoy sauce touches becomes more interesting and fun. It tastes vaguely like barbecue sauce, and I love shoveling it into my mouth atop crispy pork. Most any other meat is equally chamoy-able. Smeared on a slice of melon, meanwhile, it adds a surprising balance. On the rim of a frosty pint glass, chamoy makes your beer more quenching. Mix it with mayo, and you might as well put the stuff into an IV bag for me.
In summer, a great way to use chamoy is on a mangoneada, which is basically a mango popsicle or sherbert with chamoy. The verb mangonear means to boss somebody around, maybe grab them by the collar and shake until they have whiplash. There are many ways to serve this cold, sassy treat, my favorite being a mango popsicle that you dip into a well of chamoy.
This chamoy, which I am going to tell you how to make at home, is a relatively wholesome sauce, nothing but lime juice, salt, and chile powder added to the fruit. The bottled stuff from the store, meanwhile, is mostly corn starch, xanthan gum, sodium benzoate, and Red No. 40, a faint approximation of the real thing, with an artificial flavor, and disappointing, once you’ve tried the real chamoy.
So today, we have two recipes. The one for chamoy is more important, because this sauce will make you a true Mexican chef. But the one for mangoneada is also crucial, because it might be your favorite way to use chamoy, and the best thing you try this summer.
It’s the flavor that keeps Mexico masticating. A lot of chamoy recipes use hibiscus, which is relatively subtle compared to the other ingredients, but adds a nice level of complexity.
- 4 cups water
- 1/4 cup dried hibiscus flowers
- 1 cup dried apricots
- 1 cup dried prunes
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons chile powder (mild, medium, or hot, depending on your inclinations)
- 5 tablespoons lime juice
Boil 4 cups of water and add the hibiscus. Strain the flowers and return the tea to the pot. Add the apricots, prunes, sugar, salt, and chile powder. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
Transfer to a blender. Add the lime juice and blend until smooth. Adjust seasonings if you wish. It should be strong yet balanced and complex.
The Mangoneada, aka the Boss
This refreshing concoction depends on strong flavors cantilevered against one another, like a sailor leaning off the side of a yacht to keep it from capsizing. Only in Mexico might we find a food that is at once too spicy, too sour, too salty, and too sweet, and yet has it all work out so perfectly.
- 3 cups fresh mango chunks
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup chamoy
Blend the mango, lime juice, and sugar. Pour the slurry into 8- or 10-ounce plastic cups, about 2/3 full, and put them in the freezer. When partially frozen, place popsicle sticks in the bright orange mango mixture. When they are totally frozen, they are ready to serve.
To serve, remove a popsicle from a cup, and pour the chamoy into the empty cup. Replace the popsicle back into the cup, so it squeezes the chamoy about the sides. Let it sit for a moment so the outer surface of the popsicle can soften and absorb some chamoy. Then lick and recoat with chamoy as necessary, and repeat.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.