You can find Tajin served alongside the freshly sliced mango sold on the street in New York City on humid summer afternoons. 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 chile-lime salt. Tajin coats the rims of cocktail glasses at countless bars, and in homes, throughout the United States, the canister emblazoned with the colours of the Mexican flag is never too far out of reach.
“Tajín 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 popular Mexican product hit the United States market in 1993, and in many places, it is comparable to Heinz ketchup in its ubiquity and brand loyalty — a nostalgic and widespread flavour in Mexican and Mexican-American food. A crimson powder that stains the flesh of oranges, mangoes, cucumbers — and almost anything it touches — Tajín is made from dried granulated chiles (a combination of chiles de árbol, guajillo and pasilla), dehydrated lime and salt.
“I can’t even imagine a time before Tajín, or before salts flavoured with lime and chile,” said Mariana Gomez Rubio, a culinary consultant based in Mexico City.
Tajín is perhaps the best-known product from a family of Mexican condiments that, either alone or when eaten with other foods, combine saltiness, sweetness, sourness and the heat of chiles — a popular culinary tetrad. Chamoy, a sauce made from fermented fruit and chiles, falls into this category, as do the many types of flavoured salts made in Mexico, from sal de gusano and sal de chapulin, in which dried worms or grasshoppers are added to salt and ground chiles, to chile-lime or lemon salts. Then, there are dozens of different types of sweet-hot-tart Mexican candy, including chews and gummies.
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 Tajín, but sweet,” she said of the packets of sugar, citric acid, salt and chile powder, which come in a variety of artificial fruit flavours and feature a cartoon frog as a mascot.
Guillaume Guevara grew up in Mexico City and now owns the Mexican deli Miscellanea NY in Manhattan, which is closing this month. He recalls the candies but also has fond memories of chamoy and Tajín. “My parents never served jicama, mango, cucumbers or any fruit, really, without Tajín and chamoy,” he said.
Tajín 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 Tajín International. The company sold more than 22 million pounds of product in 35 countries last year. Its world headquarters and processing plant are in three large buildings in Zapopan, near Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. Because of increased demand, the company will move operations into a new, larger facility in Tala, a city about 25 miles west, this year.
That move is precipitated by a push into India, Japan and Pakistan, and an expectation that American interest in Tajín will continue to grow. Since 2015, the company has unveiled two new advertising campaigns in the United States, one aimed at moms featuring the tagline “Add a zing with Tajín!” and the other at millennials. 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 Tajín in the sour cream, guacamole and salsa.
“There’s definitely a feeling that Tajín 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, tacos and Topo Chico, the sparkling water brand.
“Some people call it Columbusing, but I don’t,” Arellano said. “I’m glad more Mexican ingredients are going mainstream.”
Gerson, who’s become something of an evangelist for a sweet, tart and spicy Mexican candies and sauces, says it reminds her of when Sriracha became the “it” condiment around a decade ago. Friends tell friends, who tell other friends.
Rebecca Aaron, a singer-songwriter and Tajín devotee who lives in Brooklyn, said, “There are always at least two containers of it in my kitchen at all times, and I take it with me when I travel.”
“I make all my friends try it,” she added.
Spicier, more pungent flavours have been going more mainstream in American food for decades, thanks to the continued and growing popularity of Asian cuisines, from regional Indian and Chinese to modern Korean and Japanese.
It probably helps that the heat in Tajín 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 flavours,” said Nancy Flores, a food scientist at New Mexico State University. “So when chiles 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 chile.”
In the case of a snack like the mangonada, a chilled blended mango drink layered with chamoy and Tajín, the mango’s sweetness opens up the palate for the other flavours. Just when it feels like you can’t take any more of the chile’s heat, you remember the sweet, cooling sensation of the mango.
Home cooks often play around with it; Tajín works in place of salt in omelettes, popcorn, chicken, fish and vegetables. You could use it in the salad, as they do at the restaurant Julep in Houston, where a Tajín 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.
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!”
5 – Large ripe mangoes
1/4 cup – Granulated sugar
1/4 cup – Fresh lime juice
1 1/2 cups – Cold water
3/4 cup – Silver tequila or rum (Optional)
1 cup – Chamoy
Tajin, to taste
4 – Tamarind candy straws
* Place 5 cups mango in a blender, reserving the remaining mango. Add the sugar, lime juice and cold water to the blender, and blend on medium-high speed until puréed.
* Blend in tequila or rum, if using. Blend in additional water, adding quarter cup at a time, until mango mixture reaches the desired consistency.
* Chill mango mixture, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to serve. For a colder mangonada, transfer mixture to the freezer until it reaches the consistency of a slushy.
* To serve, pour or scoop about half cup of mango mixture into each of four glasses.
* Add about 1/3 cup reserved mango to each glass, followed by one to two tablespoons chamoy and a generous sprinkle of Tajin.
* Repeat with the remaining mango mixture, mango pieces, chamoy and a final sprinkling of Tajín on top.
* Garnish each glass with a tamarind candy straw, if using, and a spoon. Serve immediately.