You can find Tajin served alongside the freshly sliced mango sold on the street in New York City. At Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Tajin garnishes esquites, a Mexican snack of stewed corn, served in mini batting helmets, while the cafe Tropicales in Houston dusts its yuca fries with the chili-lime salt. Tajin coats the rims of cocktail glasses at countless bars, and in homes throughout the United States the canister emblazoned with the colors of the Mexican flag is never too far out of reach.
“Tajin is a lifestyle,” said Gustavo Arellano, the Mexican food historian, Los Angeles Times reporter and author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.”
Pronounced ta-HEEN, the Mexican product hit the U.S. market in 1993, and in many places is comparable to Heinz ketchup in its ubiquity and brand loyalty. A crimson powder that stains the flesh of oranges, mangoes, cucumbers — and almost anything it touches — Tajin is made from dried granulated chilies (a combination of de arbol, guajillo and pasilla), dehydrated lime and salt.
“I can’t even imagine a time before Tajin, or before salts flavored with lime and chili,” said Mariana Gomez Rubio, a culinary consultant based in Mexico City.
Tajin is perhaps the best-known product from a family of Mexican condiments that combine saltiness, sweetness, sourness and the heat of chilies. Chamoy, a sauce made from fermented fruit and chilies, falls into this category, as do the many flavored salts made in Mexico and dozens of sweet-hot-tart Mexican candies.
Tajin was founded in Guadalajara in 1985, and 40% of sales now occur north of the border, according to Javier Leyva, the U.S. director of Tajin International. The company sold more than 22 million pounds of product in 35 countries last year.
Last year, the company partnered with Claudia Sandoval, winner of the sixth season of the U.S. edition of “MasterChef”; she’s responsible for promoting the product in recipes that emphasize its versatility, as in a seven-layer dip that calls for Tajin in the sour cream, guacamole and salsa.
“There’s definitely a feeling that Tajin is gaining in popularity in the U.S.,” Arellano said. “The course of Mexican food in the U.S. is always this way, where Americans eventually try a thing and gradually it becomes part of their diet,” he added, alluding to salsa and tacos. “Some people call it Columbusing, but I don’t. I’m glad more Mexican ingredients are going mainstream.”
Spicier, more pungent flavors have been going more mainstream in American food for decades, thanks to the continued and growing popularity of Asian cuisines.
It probably helps that the heat in Tajin is fairly mild, and that the salty, citrusy powder is often paired with ripe fruit.
“Sweetness and saltiness are carriers that open up the taste buds, allowing you to taste more of other flavors,” said Nancy Flores, a food scientist at New Mexico State University. “So when chilies are combined with something sweet, salty and sour, the first payoff is the sugar because your tongue detects it first, and then your brain produces dopamine. Then you might start to taste the sourness, which will linger, then the saltiness, and finally the chili.”
Tajin works in place of salt in omelets, popcorn, chicken, fish and vegetables. You could use it in salad, as they do at the restaurant Julep in Houston, where a Tajin vinaigrette dresses watermelon and arugula. Or use it to top grilled corn and a fried egg, as it’s done at Baker Miller in Chicago.
Fany Gerson, chef and owner of La Newyorkina, an ice-pop business with a shop in Manhattan, remembers hoarding candies called Brinquitos, or little jumps, when she was a child in Mexico.
“It was essentially Tajin, but sweet,” she said of the packets of sugar, citric acid, salt and chili powder, which come in a variety of artificial fruit flavors and feature a cartoon frog as a mascot.
At La Newyorkina, Gerson offers it alongside a wide selection of other sweet-tart and spicy condiments. She recommends it as a topping for any of her fruit-based sorbets and ice pops.
“People know it by name now,” Gerson said. “And if they don’t know, after they meet me, they’ll never forget it!”
By Fany Gerson
- 5 large ripe mangoes (about 15 ounces each), peeled, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 8 cups), or 2-1/2 pounds frozen mango, defrosted, divided
- 1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 limes)
- 1-1/2 cups cold water, or as needed
- 3/4 cup silver tequila or rum (optional)
- 3/4 to 1 cup chamoy (see note)
- Tajin, to taste (see note)
Place 5 cups mango in a blender. Add sugar, lime juice and 3/4 cup cold water; blend on medium-high until pureed. Blend in liquor, if using. Blend in additional water, 1/4 cup at a time, to desired consistency.
Cover and chill until ready to serve. For a colder mangonada, freeze until it reaches the consistency of a slushy.
To serve, pour or scoop about 1/2 cup of mango mixture into 4 16-ounce glasses. Divide reserved mango among glasses, followed by 1 to 2 tablespoons chamoy and a generous sprinkle of Tajin.
Repeat with remaining mango mixture, mango pieces, chamoy and a final sprinkling of Tajin on top. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
>> NOTE: Chamoy is a Mexican condiment made from fruit and chilies. Find it locally at Mercado De La Raza, 1315 S. Beretania St., and at some Walmart stores. Tajin is sold in most supermarkets.
Nutritional information unavailable.