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Friday, 16 October 2015 05:06

The History & Origins Of Canary Islands Mojo Sauce

Canarian red mojo sauce from Gran Canaria Canarian red mojo sauce from Gran Canaria www.photosgrancanaria.com

Mojo is the big star of Canary Islands cuisine and the dish that visitors always rave about. But where is it from originally? Our research shows that mojo is a tasty sauce with a fascinating history that spans three continents and thousands of years. 

What's in a name

Mojo gets its name from 'Molho', the Portuguese word for sauce. Why? Because many of the original settlers in the Canary Islands were from the Portuguese island of Madeira just north of the Canaries. They came south along with sugar cane and, although later absorbed into the Spanish settler population, left traces of their influence in the language, cuisine and architecture of the Canary Islands. 

What exactly is mojo

Canarian mojo sauce or dip is made with a base of olive oil, vinegar, sea salt and garlic. Red mojo is flavoured and coloured with pimentón (paprika), chili and cumin while green mojo uses coriander or parsley and green peppers. Mojo is packed with flavour but isn't very spicy unless you get mojo picón; a version of red mojo made with local bird's eye chillies known as 'pimientos de la puta madre'.

Red mojo is traditionally served with small potatoes boiled in salty water until they go wrinkly while green mojo is traditionally served with fish. Tourists often see red and green mojo served along with aioli as a triple dip served with the bread.

Lex says: One of the great things about mojo is that there are as many recipes as there are cooks and none of them taste as good as your gran's version. 

Variations of mojo sauce are common in Cuba, Puerto Rico and other Spanish-Caribbean islands. Mojo is also believed to have influenced the sauces, marinades and barbeque of Deep South cuisine in the USA.

Mojo in history

Mojo sauce is a delicious consequence of the Canary Islands' role as a bridge between Europe, Africa and the Americas. It was probably invented in the Canary Islands because this was the first place where all the ingredients came together; chili peppers from South America, pimentón and olive oil from Spain, cumin from North Africa. And let say that the long-lost Guanche cuisine, which developed over 1,500 years before the Spanish arrived in the Canaries, had its influence as well. 

The history of green mojo

Green mojo is clearly a variant of Mediterranean green sauce or salsa verde (made with herbs, oil, vinegar and garlic)  common from Portugal to Italy. The original recipe is thought to have come to Europe from the Near East with Roman legionaries.

Each country uses a different mix of herbs for their own green sauce; In Portugal, parsley is the main green element; In Italy parsley and capers are combined with onion and anchovies; In France, sauce vert contains tarragon and even sage and parsley. The Germans go wild with Grüne Soße, which contains Northern European green herbs like borage, sorrel, garden cress, chervil, chives, parsley, and salad burnet.

In Mexico, salsa verde contains coriander along with green tomatillos and hot green peppers. 

In the Canary Islands, coriander (cilantro) is the main green ingredient, although some people add parsley and even green pepper (although this makes grannies spin in their graves). 

The history of red mojo

Red mojo seems to have it's origins in North African or Spanish cuisine (itself heavily influenced by 800 years of Moorish occupation). It may well back to pre-Hispanic times as we know that the island's original Guanche inhabitants were Berbers from North Africa. 

Consider how similar red mojo is to the Moroccan marinade called chermoula. It contains olive oil, preserved lemon peel or lemon juice, garlic, cayenne, paprika, cumin, parsley and cilantro. 

Pimentón is also a common flavouring in Spanish food and is used to flavour and spice sobrasada sausages and paste. 

What about the potatoes?

Red mojo is served on papas arrugadas; little potatoes boiled in sea water until their skin wrinkles up and a fine crust of salt appears. The best potatoes to use are tiny little ones with purple skin and yellow flesh that are called papas negras. They were amongst the first potatoes brought to Europe from America and have disappeared everywhere except the Canaries. 

Alex says: If you ever find a menu that translates papas arrugadas as 'wrinkly popes', please steal it for us. It's a mythical mistranslation but we've never seen it. 

So that's the history of Canarian mojo sauce.  Like all good things, it came out of a blend of cultures and cuisines and found its own home where they all met. To make it, follow our red and green recipes.

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  • The Legendary Red Mojo Sauce: Gran Canaria Recipe

    Mojo sauce is the Canary Islands' most famous condiment and one half of "papas arrugadas con mojo", our most popular dish. It is tasty, garlicky and spicy, but not actually that fiery unless you get Mojo Picon; the chilied up version. 

    Mojo sauce is either red or green (mojo rojo and mojo verde) depending on whether it is flavoured with paprika or fresh coriander. Both types also contain oil, vinegar, cumin, garlic and chili. The red form is served with small, salted potatoes while the green form is traditionally served with fish.

    The name mojo probably comes from the Portuguese word molho, which means sauce: A reminder that many early Canarian settlers came from the nearby Portuguese island of Madeira. They migrated to the Canary Islands to start off its sugar cane industry.

    Red Mojo Recipe

    Makes enough for a good portion of mojo sauce for papas arrugadas for four people.


    5 garlic of cloves
    A teaspoon of cumin seeds
    2 or 3 dried birds eye chilies, more for Mojo Picon
    A good pinch of salt
    A teaspoon of smoky paprika or pimentón
    3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    5 tablespoons olive oil

    3 or 4 tablespoons breadcrumbs to thicken 

    A splash of water to loosen the sauce, or a couple of roasted tomatoes.


    Dry fry the cumin until it starts to pop to release its flavours. Grind it up in a pestle and mortar along with the dried chilies, salt, pimentón and the garlic cloves until you get an even paste. Add the olive oil and vinegar and mix well. Add breadcrumbs to thicken and water to loosen. Mojo should be thick enough to stick to the potatoes but not be lumpy.

    Mojo Rojo is almost always served with papas arrugadas: Small potatoes cooked in sea water or very salty water. The salt sucks water out of the potatoes, leaving them with wrinkled skin. 

    To make papas arrugadas boil small potatoes in just enough sea water or salty water to cover them. Leave the pan uncovered and cook until the water is almost all gone. Leave them in the open pan until they are dry and the skin is covered with a fine white crust of salt.

    To make proper papas con mojo pour the sauce generously over the potatoes rather than in a separate dish. Squash each potato before removing it from the sauce for maximum absorption. Papas con mojo goes brilliantly with good Canarian goat's cheese. 

  • Going Green: Canary Islands Green Mojo Sauce Recipe

    Mojo is the quintessential Canaria sauce. The red form, served with little wrinkled potatoes is the most famous kind, but the herby green variety is just as good. It's intense colour and flavour come from fresh coriander (cilantro).

    Green mojo is traditionally served drizzled over big pieces of boiled potatoes, on fried fish or on slices of octopus. On Gran Canaria you rarely get it with wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugadas) but it is served this way on other islands.

    Mojo verde is very similar to Portuguese salsa verde but uses coriander instead of parsley. It may be yet another reminder that many of the earliest settlers in the Canary Islands came from the Portuguese island of Madeira, just to the north of the Canaries.

    To make enough mojo for a decent dipping session you need:

    A good bunch of fresh coriander
    Six fat cloves of garlic
    Half a teaspoon on cumin seeds
    A big pinch of salt
    One fresh green chilli pepper
    Olive oil
    Cider or wine vinegar (not malt vinegar: too strong)
    A hand full of breadcrumbs to thicken

    Grind up the coriander leaves and the tops of the stalks with the garlic, salt, chilli and cumin. You can use a blender but a pestle and mortar does a better job. You want to end up with a smooth paste with no oil floating on top. 

    Add about 200 ml of olive oil and 50 ml of vinegar and mix well until you get a thick, sticky sauce. If the mixture is too thin add some breadcrumbs. If it is too thick dilute it with a bit of white wine. 

    Serve mojo verde straight away as a dipping sauce with crusty bread, or with almost any other Canarian dish. It goes particularly well with fried fish. You can store it in the fridge for a couple of days but it loses its flavour quickly.

    Some people add a handful of green peppers (capsicum) and a teaspoon of dried oregano leaves. Other substitute half the coriander for parsley. These extras are not traditional but do create a green mojo sauce with more depth of flavour. 

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