Medical News

Where Does Salsa End and Gazpacho Begin?

My obsession with salsa, gazpacho, and the line between them began with a joke. A friend had, or so her husband reported, faced her nearly empty refrigerator one night and in a moment of panicked hunger started eating salsa for dinner. Only salsa. No chips. Just spoon straight in the jar. “Did she add water and claim it was gazpacho?” I asked.

She had not. But could she have? The suggestion is not absurd. Salsa is an oniony, peppery, tomato-based food. Gazpacho, too, is an oniony, peppery, tomato-based food. Pace, one of the most popular salsa brands in America, has in fact provided a recipe for transforming its picante sauce into gazpacho. And the cookbook author Mark Bittman once proposed an even simpler strategy: Start with a fresh salsa, chill, and maybe puree—voilà, soup!

Was that all it took? On the one hand, no one would really confuse the two foods. Gazpacho is thinner, less spicy, and in many cases fresher than salsa. Would anyone call salsa a “drinkable salad”? On the other hand, the overlap—at least in the American conception—was large enough that, the closer I looked, the less clear the line became. What, I started wondering, really distinguishes one from the other?

In their mass-market versions, the two products are fairly distinct, and their producers clear-eyed about their use. The most popular salsa brands in the U.S.—Tostitos, Pace, Chi-Chi’s—are thick enough to come in jars; the leading brands of gazpacho (sold widely in Europe) are thin enough to come in cartons or tall glass bottles. Gazpacho “is meant to be consumed cold in a larger amount,” Scott Bova, vice president of global culinary for Whole Foods, the rare company that produces both salsa and gazpacho, told me. Salsa is not. It is “a dip, a topper, and a cooking sauce,” Michelle Canellopoulos, the senior director for marketing and insights at MegaMex Foods, which includes Chi-Chi’s, Herdez, and La Victoria salsas, wrote in an email.

To work with a “dipper” like tortilla chips, Bova added, salsa must achieve a viscosity such that it can “cling to the items that you are dipping into.” Gazpacho, meanwhile—at least in its classic form—“should be pureed completely,” Katie Button, the founder of Cúrate, a James Beard Award–winning tapas bar in Asheville, North Carolina, told me.  

I had asked Button and a handful of other prominent chefs of Spanish food what they considered “authentic” gazpacho. Their answers converged on key characteristics. Besides texture, they all ticked off the same list of ingredients: tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green peppers, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and bread. But, each chef acknowledged, variations are possible. Omar Allibhoy, the author of Spanish Made Simple, allowed that bread could be omitted; he also advocated for adding cumin powder, or watermelon. José Pizarro, a celebrity Spanish chef in the U.K., mentioned cherry, melon, and strawberry. Button noted the existence of “green gazpacho with all green vegetables.”

And this presented a problem. Freed from its basic list of ingredients, gazpacho sprawls. Many versions eschew bread. Many leave out cucumbers, or peppers, or garlic, or onions, or even tomatoes. Some include avocado and peas, nuts, spinach, corn, kale, or olives. Fruits abound: not just strawberry or watermelon, but grapes, honeydew, cantaloupe, orange, mango, peaches, apples. Some people top gazpacho with crab, or shrimp. Many recipes call for the ingredients to be blended, but some suggest a chunkier texture.

What is a dish that prominently features chopped tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños, seasoned with garlic and cilantro if not … salsa? But salsa, too, has an ingredient problem. Like gazpacho, it can seemingly contain anything. It may not usually include bread—except sometimes it does. Cucumber salsa is a thing. Avocado-and-pea salsa is a thing. So is grape salsa, melon salsa, mango salsa, peach salsa, apple salsa. Kale salsa? Yup. Shrimp salsa? Sure. Salsa with walnuts? Classic. When I asked Doug Renfro, the president of Renfro Foods, an 83-year-old family business whose product line includes 18 different salsas, what absolutely does not belong in a salsa, he replied, “Other than meat? Nothing, really.” Maybe zucchini, he said, because then you’ve made stew. (Although zucchini salsa … is also a thing.) One could argue that salsa, unlike gazpacho, must have heat derived from some variety of chili pepper, but in the United States, that premise does not hold. Salsa can be salsa without touching the Scoville scale.

Once salsa doesn’t have to be spicy, other defining qualities start to slip. “The spice level is higher in salsas because it is eaten in smaller quantities,” Bova, the Whole Foods VP, told me. By that logic, a less spicy salsa, and even more so a spice-less salsa, could be consumed in larger quantities, maybe even on its own. Maybe enough to qualify as a standalone meal, which Bova listed as another key gazpacho feature. In other words, maybe I was onto something: Anyone consuming salsa for dinner really could just transform it into gazpacho and feel fine about it.

This could simply mean using a spoon. I asked Mark Bittman whether he still believes that salsa can transform into gazpacho. He does. The distinction, he told me, lies with the user’s intention. “Are you eating it with a spoon, or using it as a sauce?” he asked. If sauce, then salsa. If spoon, then gazpacho.

The core struggle of the salsa-gazpacho question is that both foods are categories, more than singular items. Salsa, after all, really just means “sauce.” Gazpacho might have once been a specific dish, but “if you accept green-grape-almond gazpacho as legitimate, then gazpacho is just cold soup,” Bittman said. The human mind excels at categorizing. But look too closely at almost any boundary that keeps the world organized, and it begins to blur. Ambiguity can start to tear at the seams of reality. When does a dumpling become a tortellini become a pierogi? At what precise shade does red become orange, or blue become purple? Where is the boundary between an object and the air around it? At what moment did humans become human?

The specificity of real experience can be grounding. Context makes meaning: A bowl heaped with red mash at a Mexican restaurant is very likely to be salsa; a bowl heaped with red mash at a tapas bar is very likely to be gazpacho. When I did, inevitably, try eating salsa on its own (to be precise, Frontera Double Roasted Tomato Salsa, made with tomatoes, water, onions, jalapeños, garlic, and less than 2 percent of cilantro, salt, and vinegar), it tasted like salsa. Even from a bowl; even with a spoon. If it had been gazpacho, it would have been bad gazpacho, both too spicy and too salty.

The closest I came to a line separating gazpacho from salsa came down to a season. Gazpacho should be made in the summer, Button, the Cúrate chef, told me, when those traditional ingredients come to peak perfection, and the heat demands a refreshing something. It is definitionally not just a soup but, as Bittman said, a cold soup. Whole Foods, for instance, sells gazpacho only from the end of May through mid-September. That led me to the one ingredient that does seem appropriate for gazpacho but not salsa. Allibhoy, the Spanish chef, suggested that to chill gazpacho properly, without compromising flavor, one should add ice. Which just goes to show that my original instinct, born from years of experience eating both gazpacho and salsa, was on point. Add water—okay, frozen water—to salsa, and you’re a significant step closer to gazpacho and a food that, in a pinch, can count as a dinner.