If one flavor could encapsulate Mexico in a bite, it would be chamoy. Chamoy, which comes as a dried fruit, candy, and sauce, is a salted pickled sour fruit (traditionally made from ume plums, which are really sour apricots) that’s spiked with chiles. “Anything that has all the flavors at once — sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and a little umami — that’s where Mexico loves to live, whether it is tamarind, mole, or chamoy,” says chef Barbara Sibley of New York City’s La Palapa. She remembers it fondly from her childhood in Mexico City, which didn’t sell American candy prior to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).
“I would just eat it straight up, till my teeth felt like they were going to fall out,” she says. “It was something that I really, really missed when I came to New York.”
Chef Daniel Bojorquez of La Brasa and Fat Hen in Somerville, Massachusetts, also feels nostalgic for chamoy. “If you are Mexican, you have had chamoy at some point in your life,” he says. “It’s like peanut butter in the U.S.” But luckily for both Bojorquez and Sibley — and in part because of their own appetite for the ingredient — it’s a flavor that more and more chefs are playing with in unexpected ways: It’s popping up as a savory sauce for protein and drizzled over sweet desserts. But before looking at how chefs are inventing new uses for chamoy, it helps to know how it originated.
Chamoy 101: Traditional Mexican Variations
Chamoy is considered junk food in Mexico, which means it is more likely found as street food than in a fine-dining establishment. The dried-fruit version (sold as chamoy or saladito) is available dry or wet (in a spicy sauce) along with other traditional Mexican candies, like palanquetas and mazapan. Any sour fruit can be used, including unripe plums, sour mangoes, tamarind pods, or apricots, and, when possible, the seed is left attached to the fruit.
In recent decades, chamoy has been reinvented as a hot sauce that’s often used by street-food vendors in Mexico and the United States. It can be found adorning simple slices of mango and cucumber, mixed into cups of esquites (a creamy mix of corn, crema, cotija cheese, mayonnaise, lime, butter, and chile powder), or lining a glass of mangonada (a spicy drink that can be made with mango sorbet or mango shaved ice, fresh mango, lime juice, and chile powder).
Mexican children enjoy eating chamoy-flavored candies, including fruit-flavored lollipops rolled in or filled with chamoy, candy powder, liquid candy drizzled on top of spicy tortilla chips, and chamoy gummies. And that doesn’t include the fruit paletas (popsicles), raspados (shaved ice), nieves (sorbet), and helados (ice cream) it gets drizzled on, made with sweet and sour fruits like mango, pineapple, or tamarind.
The History of Chamoy
Chamoy was brought to Mexico by the Chinese, and only began to be considered a traditional Mexican food fairly recently. No one knows exactly when chamoy first appeared, but according to food historian Rachel Laudan and food anthropologist Gene Anderson, it probably arrived between the 16th and 19th century with Chinese immigrants. Many Asian ingredients arrived in Mexico during this time, including tamarind, mango, and see mui, a salted, dried apricot with licorice flavors. See mui was the inspiration for Japanese umeboshi (a pickled and salted apricot made from the same ume plum), and eventually became Mexican chamoy.
No one knows when Mexicans started eating chamoy, but it was likely a slow process. Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo in Austin, Texas, recalls her father buying dried or wet plums sold as chamoy from a Chinese or Japanese vendor in Mexico City in the late ’60s. Eventually, Mexicans made it their own by adding spicy chile peppers. In the 1970s, Mexican candy companies, including Dulces Miguelito and Lucas, started mass-producing chamoy candy and sauce, and by the 1990s, it was a ubiquitous part of the culture — so much so that its Asian origins became lost in Mexican culture.
For Sibley, it took moving from Mexico to New York City and traveling to Asia to piece it together. She first tried umeboshi at Japanese restaurants in New York, and then, “in Thailand, I tasted all of the dried plums outside of the temples, and was like, oh my God, it’s chamoy!”
Most chamoy made today is processed, full of preservatives, and enhanced with high-fructose corn syrup; some chamoy sauce doesn’t even contain fruit, but instead uses citric acid to mimic the tart fruit flavor. But recently, chefs in the U.S. and Mexico have been using this intensely flavored food to flex their creative muscles, lifting it out of the junk-food category to cook with it in fine-dining restaurants and mix it into cocktails.
Some chefs are using bottled chamoy sauce as a jumping-off point for different dishes, including Bojorquez. He hails from Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, where he “grew up grilling,” and that experience can be seen in his chamoy and charred tomatillo barbecue sauce. The tart, slightly herbal fruit is the perfect complement to chamoy’s acidic sweet heat. In Somerville, Massachusetts, where Bojorquez lives, Mexican ingredients are hard to come by, so using bottled chamoy is his best bet.
Others prefer to make their own chamoy from scratch, but there is no one “right” way to make it. Some chefs go to Mexico to research recipes, while others draw inspiration from other cultures or simply try to mimic its flavors (see Rick Bayless’s “chamoy sauce” made from apricot spread, hot sauce, and lime).
When married couple Rodrigo Sales and Leticia Castellano moved to Dallas, Texas, they longed for a taste of home (Mexico City for both), so they created a line of Mexican cooking sauces called Molli. After consulting chamoy makers in Mexico, they added a Culiacan chamoy sauce, made from dried apricots quick pickled in vinegar, orange, and lime juice, with guajillo and piquin chiles, salt and brown sugar to finish, to their product line.
Sales enjoys using it to roast root vegetables and enhance mezcal cocktails, and also created a baked salmon with chamoy recipe after finding “inspiration from Japanese/Chinese recipes that use similar sauces with salmon or other sweet fish.” It is the only company known to sell artisanal chamoy sauce in the U.S. However, if the 20 percent tax on all Mexican imports that President Trump has proposed goes through, there could soon be a market for artisanal chamoy in the U.S.
Sibley of La Palapa also uses dried apricots in her chamoy, but instead of pickling, she prefers to rehydrate them, a process that she says better preserves their intense flavor. She blends them with concentrated unsweetened hibiscus tea for color and extra tartness (“sometimes lime juice just gets in the way,” she explains), sugar, salt, and a puree of different chiles. Occasionally she’ll throw in a umeboshi from a Japanese market since it’s already salted and pickled. Sibley’s favorite way to use her homemade chamoy is as a glaze for a seared and charred duck breast or in her frozen lime margaritas. She says some customers are afraid that its bright red color means it’s too spicy, but once they taste it, they always fall in love.
Because chamoy is so embedded in Mexican snack culture, chef, teacher, and restaurant consultant Norma Listman didn’t even consider experimenting with chamoy until she started working in the Bay area (she grew up in Texcoco, Mexico, and currently lives in San Francisco, Nayarit). She developed her version using a Japanese umeboshi recipe and tips from chamoy makers in Sinaloa, the state known for making the best chamoy in Mexico (and also home to a large settlement of Chinese immigrants). First, she salt-preserves slightly unripe ume plums (“You can also use Santa Rosa plums or apricots,” she notes) and hibiscus flowers slightly sweetened with honey, which get pureed, then cooked with lime juice, champagne vinegar, chile guajillo, and morita. She finishes with a few drops of rose water.
But to chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol (Mexico City) and Cosme (New York City), chamoy makes the best desserts. His chamoy sauce omits the fruit entirely, using a pineapple vinegar for a fruity tang, along with chile de arbol, sugar, and water. Traditional sweets with chamoy tend to be sugar bombs, but Olvera thinks subtle is better. “I prefer for my desserts to cleanse the palate, instead of having a sugar rush,” he says. So for Cosme, he created a riff on raspado, a popular dessert of shaved ice that’s often served with chamoy. His version uses a tart rhubarb granita, fennel ice cream, and a light chamoy sauce. At Pujol, he offers a peach compressed with chamoy in a vacuum sealer that’s served with a smoky mezcal ice cream.
From a Chinese snack that traveled across the ocean to an iconic condiment of Mexican street food to a new player in the restaurant kitchens of Mexico City and Manhattan, chamoy has come a long way. As chefs across the U.S. and Mexico continue to redefine how chamoy can be used in the kitchen, they are also making it approachable to the American palate; as a result, it’s easier for the U.S. to enjoy a bit of Mexican nostalgia. And who knows? As more people start to accept this ambush of flavor for the addictive food it is, we could start to see artisanal chamoy products in our grocery store, right next to the salsa.
Leena Trivedi-Grenier is a Bay Area food and culture writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, NPR’s the Salt, and Extra Crispy. Jake Lindeman is a photographer based in Mexico City.
Editor: Erin DeJesus