When I moved to Key West in the early 1970s, I discovered a lively sauce called a mojo that jazzed up everything from french fries to grilled fish. A little bit like a warm vinaigrette, but bursting with bold flavors such as fragrant garlic, hot chiles, and the juices of tropical fruits, mojo (pronounced MOE-HOE) was an exciting sauce for a young chef like me. Not only did I love the fresh flavors, but I liked the fact that mojo was a “multicultural sauce” (see panel). I’d been looking for a way to expand my cooking style and get away from the dominance of French sauces. I was happy to find in mojos a family of fresh-tasting sauces that got its distinctive personality from the ingredients of the New World.
Since my early days in Key West, I’ve made a lot of mojo. Over the years, in my restaurant and at home, I’ve created my own mojo variations that I think pair especially well with grilled food. My mojos are always boldly seasoned (I’m fond of the hot-sweet complexity of habanero chiles, for example) but balanced as well. I think mojos taste best when they’re freshly made, slightly warm, and have had a chance to mingle with the juices of meat or vegetables that have just finished cooking. At the same time, I think mojos are too overwhelming for raw food or delicate lettuces, so try not to think of them as regular vinaigrettes. And while I love to make mojos for warm-weather grilling, they work just as well in winter, paired with a roast chicken or a sautéed fish fillet.
I’ve included recipes here for three of my favorite mojos for grilled food. I love the way tropical fruits and hot chiles work together, so I created a luscious mango and habanero mojo—a simple purée that doesn’t mask the flavor of fresh, grilled seafood like tuna, grouper, or shrimp.
One of my family’s favorite mojos is my “Mo J.”We make a lot of this garlicky, cuminscented mojo, use half of it to marinate flank steak or chicken, and reserve the other half to drizzle on as a sauce when the meat comes off the grill. This mojo is made much the way a traditional mojo was: hot oil is poured over fresh garlic and spices, both to cook the edge off the garlic and to infuse the oil with all the flavors of the mojo. And the third mojo recipe has Asian influences, including ingredients like fresh ginger and soy sauce, inspired by the Chinese immigrants who contributed their flavors and ingredients to the New World when they came to Cuba in the mid-1900s to work as laborers in the sugar and railway industries. I like to pair this mojo with grilled shiitakes and somen noodles.
M y mojos all vary slightly in technique, but they’re not hard to make. The Mango Habanero Mojo comes together easily in a blender. When I can, I make my “Mo J” in a molcajete (a big stone mortar; it’s pronounced mohl-kah-HAY-tay) as a traditional mojo might have been made, but I also use a food processor just as successfully. In my Mojo Oriental, I add the finely chopped aromatics to the liquid ingredients before the whole mixture is heated. All three of these can be made and refrigerated ahead (the “Mo J” and Mojo Oriental will keep well for several days; the Mango Habanero Mojo is best used the day it’s made). Once you make these recipes with the food I’ve suggested, try making a mojo to serve with steamed vegetables or roasted chicken, or your own favorite food from the grill.
The well-travelled mojo
According to my friend Maricel Presilla, a food historian who grew up in Cuba and is writing a book on the cooking traditions of Latin America, mojo (from the Spanish mojar, “to moisten”) originated in Spain and came to the New World with the Spanish invaders, who carried it all over Latin America. Mojo then made its way to the Spanish Caribbean, including Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
Typically, a mojo was a boldly seasoned vinaigrettetype sauce that was heated to infuse its flavors. With the generous flavors of garlic, chiles, and herbs, and the tenderizing effect of an oil- and acid-based medium (the acid was often vinegar or citrus juice), mojo was traditionally used to moisten, marinate, and flavor dry foods like starchy tubers or well-cooked meats.
As mojo travelled through the New World, it changed to suit the ingredients of different regions. For example, Cubans infused mojo with the juice of a sour orange to create their ubiquitous sauce, mojo criollo (criollo means handmade but implies “made with love”), which is drizzled on roast pig and other barbecued meats.
Mojo picked up tropical chiles and fruits in the Caribbean, as well as the spices of different immigrant groups. By the time I encountered mojo in key west, it wasnt just one mojo, but a big family of mojos.