What is “Pico de gallo”?

pico de gallo, salsa and salad

I asked my mom if she knew any names for Mexican fruit salad, and she thought of a recipe from the Mexican state of Jalisco called “Pico de gallo”, but when I heard that, I admit that I thought of the popular fresh salsa with tomatoes.  I was puzzled, and what I found in my recipe books and online searches was that Mexican sources generally used “Pico de gallo” for the fruit salad, and the American sources reserved the name for the salsa, which is also the case in Canada.  A few chefs settle the issue by identifying “pico de gallo” as a technique for chopping and mixing any produce, so it would be an umbrella term for both the fruit salad, and the salsa.  I decided to ask several of my friends and relatives what “pico de gallo” meant to them, covering different backgrounds, current countries of residence, and ages.  I thought I would confirm my literature search, so Mexicans would identify it as a fruit salad, and others as a salsa with tomatoes, but it turned out to be a matter of “when” as well as “where.”  Mexicans about 60 years old or older (like my mom) thought it was the fruit salad, while younger people (even Mexicans born and residing in Mexico) for the most part, thought it was the salsa.  A good friend from Mexico mentioned a key story; she is not older than 60, but as part of her job, just happened to be working on a book with a reference to “Pico de gallo” set in Jalisco, in the first half of the 20th century.  It established the dish as an appetizer of chopped and seasoned fruit, eaten with panela (a type of fresh cheese) and washed down with tequila.  Eureka!  That confirmed my mom’s comment.  The last piece of the puzzle was the story of Roque Olivos, an entrepreneur who founded Pico de Gallo’s ™ in California in 1987.  He marketed a seasoning with the same name, explaining that this “… term comes from Mexico and refers to the red hot chile used in producing this seasoning.  Although here in the United States the term is used by Americans in reference to a fresh salsa, and is very common in Southwestern Cuisine, Mexicans still know “pico de gallo” as the fresh fruit salad covered with the red hot chile powder and salt.”  This red hot chile (hot pepper) is dry pequin, or piquín.

In conclusion, the dish was originally a fruit salad, named in relation to the hot pepper used in its seasoning (piquín could refer to picante=spicy hot, or a diminutive form of pico=beak; and this pepper, when dried, does look a little like a bird’s beak); later on, the name was popularized for the fresh salsa (salsa mexicana), first in the Southwestern region of the United States, and more recently, in the rest of that and other countries, including Canada. Since both dishes are a mix of chopped produce, and could have similar colour patterns, I imagine some people probably commented on how the salsa looked like “Pico de gallo”, and the name just stuck.  My sister lives in Mexico, and she told me that, some ten years ago or so, restaurants started listing the salsa as “Pico de gallo” on their menus.  That is a beautiful example of how colloquialisms are created, and languages are enriched as they evolve, to stay vibrant and alive, so I will honour this process, acknowledging that “Pico de gallo” is both a fresh salsa – also known as  “Salsa mexicana” – and a Mexican Fruit Salad.  Now, I am ready to prepare my fruit salad:

Pico de gallo Mexican Fruit SaladComparison seasoningsI went to the supermarket and also to a couple of international food stores.  I chose cucumber, mango, papaya and cantaloupe, to go with the mini watermelon I still had at home.  I could not find the dry piquín peppers, but one of the stores carried Tajín™ Classic. If neither the peppers nor the prepared seasonings can be found, another ground dry hot pepper such as cayenne may be used. Chili powder is another possibility, but as a last resort though, because it is a blend of spices and several peppers, so the colour, particle size and flavour will certainly be different (see photo).

 

mangoesI am sure I don’t need to include photos of individual fruits, except maybe the mango; there are many varieties, which fall mainly into two categories: the red and round, with a flat pit (e.g, Petakon, Haden); and the yellow, which are smaller and more elongated than the red (e.g, Manila, Ataulfo).  The red varieties are easier to slice, and have less fiber in their flesh, so that is the one I got for my salad.  I followed the instructions on my recipe card; I sprinkled lime juice and Tajín™, and did not need to add any salt, for my taste.

 

pico de gallo fruit salad

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