Chamoy usually pertains to a type of sauce or spice derived from a variety of pickled fruit, but can also refer to the pickled fruit itself. It often has a slightly acidic and sour taste, combined with some saltiness and sweetness, creating a much layered flavor. Powdered chilies are also added to give the sauce some spiciness. Depending on the region where it is made, the consistency of the sauce can range from being very watery like typical sauces, to being sticky like jam.
There are some uncertainties as to how the chamoy became a part of Mexican cuisine, but many historical accounts point to the Japanese dish called the “umeboshi” as a plausible influence. The umeboshi is a pickled or a dried “ume” fruit that has a very acidic but salty taste. Other accounts credit the Chinese fruit snacks like the “li hing mui” as the origin of the Mexican sauce. Li hing mui is a dried plum that has a very salty and sour taste, often with a hint of sweetness. Another Chinese dried fruit snack called the “see mui” is said to be the source of the word “chamoy.”
Like its Asian contemporaries of preserved fruits, the Mexican chamoy can be made out of plums, but it can also use an array of fruits such as apricots, mangoes, and even apples. The fruits are initially soaked in brine or a salt solution that can draw out both the fruit’s natural sugars and acids. It is not uncommon to mix some vinegar in the brine, to give the fruit more acidity. Sometimes, a little sugar and some lime juice are also added to the solution to create a more interesting flavor.
The dried fruit is taken out once all the juices are extracted and mixed into the solution, which is then separately prepared and seasoned according to taste. What makes the chamoy as such is the addition of chili powder, giving the sauce an initial flavor or sourness and saltiness, but an aftertaste of spiciness. To make the sauce thicker, it can be boiled and simmered, or a small amount of fruit puree can be added. The dried fruit is not disposed of, but is instead repacked as a snack called “saladitos,” translated as “little salty things.”
Chamoy is used as a sauce or a marinade for dishes such as chicken, fish, and other grilled meat dishes. It can also be used as a salad dressing, particularly for tropical fruit salads containing mangoes, pineapples, peaches, and oranges. The sauce can even be consumed as a dip for potato and corn chips.