Many North Americans would look at the word "mojo" in its printed form and pronounce it “mo-joe." In Spanish of course, it's pronounced "mo-ho" because the letter “j” is pronounced as an "h," as in jalapeño.
The word mojo comes from the word “mojar,” which means, "to wetten” so the usage of mojo can actually be pretty broad in that there are many ways to ‘wetten’ food. Years ago, I took a rather radical departure from the traditions of mojo and made tropical fruit mojos! If mojo meant a thing that would get something wet, I wanted to demonstrate that food that I’d added spices to, especially fish, would be happy swimming in a puree of mango and another dimensional ingredient or so.
Living in South Florida has familiarized me with mojo for a long time now. If you do see them in a market, and you are the type to read an ingredient label, you might be alarmed. A lot of stuff is in those versions that I know many Cuban grandmothers would not use! I don’t know why people buy them. They are garishly-colored, chemical concoctions that are a far cry from a good homemade version, which I will tell you is actually a snap to make and it keeps for weeks in the fridge.
The mojo I make most often is done with toasted and ground cumin, freshly squeezed sour oranges (or if in a more northern state where sour oranges are hard to come by, a substitution of half lime juice and half orange juice), olive oil, a touch of chilies, sherry vinegar and of course garlic, salt and pepper.
One of the additional beauties of mojo is that is both wonderful as a finishing sauce - as in the classic of “Yuca con Mojo” - but it is just as useful as a marinade. I love grilled chicken as do so many others. But if you want to do a version that sings, douse a cut up chicken, (skin on for me!) with a good measure of mojo about 6 to 8 hours before you want to hit the grill. The neighbors will be offering to mow your grass our replenish your beer cooler for an invite. It is party food!
The chief difference in classic mojo versus a classic vinaigrette is that there is a cooking process with mojo and not with vinaigrettes.
Close your eyes and put on the imaginary headphones for a moment with me. Now, imagine blues great Muddy Waters. Really. Trust me on this. Imagine Muddy playing the country blues he was performing down South near his hometown of Jug’s Corner, Mississippi around 1941. He picked on an acoustic guitar in those early days. He was probably wailing like Son House or the infamous Robert Johnson of “Crossroads” fame. But when he got up to Chicago he discovered the electric guitar and became the man who "got his Mojo working!"
Muddy is cooking in acoustic mode in my mind when I think of a making a vinaigrette. Nothing really wrong with good old vinaigrettes, they’re acoustically sound, but with a mojo you need heat first. And that is where the ‘electricity’ enters to create mojo!
You see, the first mojos were made with lard NOT olive oil. They came from a place where olives did not grow and so olive oil was not capable of being used. This was before jets and internet shopping. The native people made mojos with the provident pork fat they did have. And pork fat (also known as lard), had to be melted first or it wouldn’t flow over any foods to spread that deep flavor. When olive oil eventually did become available, the recipe began to shift away from lard, but the heat remained.
So plug in that power and heat. Wham! Electricity! Got your Mojo workin'?
Play on, Muddy. ’Cause it sure does work on me!
RECIPE FOR SOUR ORANGE MOJO
Yields: 1 ¼ Cups
6 Cloves raw, peeled and minced garlic
1-2 Scotch bonnet chiles, stem and seeds discarded, minced
1/2 Teaspoon kosher salt
2 Teaspoons, whole and freshly toasted cumin seeds
1 Cup pure olive oil
1/3 Cup sour orange juice
2 Teaspoons Spanish sherry vinegar
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
Mash the raw garlic, chilies, salt and cumin together in a mortar with the pestle until fairly smooth. Scrape this into a bowl and set aside a moment.
Now heat the olive oil until fairly hot and pour it over the garlic-chilies mix and allow to stand 10 minutes. Now whisk in the sour orange juice and the vinegar. Season with the salt and pepper to taste and set aside until ready to use.