In her early-2000s pop hit “Limón y Sal,” the Mexican-American musician Julieta Venegas sings, I want you with lime and salt, I want you just the way you are. She’s making a common culinary observation: Both lime and salt heighten the flavor of whatever they touch; they make things taste more like themselves, just the way they are. And she’s also playing on the Mexican culinary tendency to add lime and salt to virtually everything. If you want something, anything, you want it with limón y sal—how else?
This extends to the Mexican hangover remedy par excellence. While you may opt for Pedialyte or Gatorade or carrot-ginger-green juice, suero, or tehuacán preparado, requires only three ingredients: sparkling water, lime and salt. While it’s most common as a hangover cure, it also serves to quiet an upset stomach or cool off on a hot day. In my last few years living in Mexico, suero has become my favorite beverage in the world.
You can either order or compose a suero at virtually any establishment in Mexico, a cantina or a cocktail bar, a taqueria or trendy café. It consists of a shot of lime juice, often a dash of salt, topped with sparkling water, in a glass with a salted rim. (If you’re fancy, you might get some chili on your glass rim, or a tajín-spiced citrus garnish.) It is a tall glass of pure electrolyte. The salt, lime and carbonation give the drink enough of a tang that it’s not quite chuggable. Suero is a perfect order if I go out and don’t feel like drinking. It drinks like a cocktail but hydrates like a sports beverage. I find soda water with lime boring, too sweet, whether with a wedge dropped in or an added artificial flavor (lime-flavored Topo Chico doesn’t even come close). But for someone averse to sugary beverages—alcoholic or not—the lime gives just enough sweetness to cut the salt. When I’m parched from dancing, it quenches my thirst far better than just water.
When I’m out in the city, or in a pinch, I’m addicted to the convenience-store version of suero: Peñafiel Twist, a sparkling water with lime and salt. (Early this year, production of the drink was temporarily suspended after some Peñafiel was found to contain traces of arsenic. My obsession did not flag. When I return to Mexico after an extended period away, Peñafiel Twist is the first thing I buy when I get to the Mexico City airport.) Some people say that it tastes like sea water; I say it tastes like vacation.
Samin Nosrat highlights Mexican cooking’s expert use of acid in both the book and Netflix-series versions of Salt Fat Acid Heat. Everyday Mexican home cooking is as flavorful as it is simple. Salt and lime make even the humblest dish blossom with flavor—a tortilla, or a basic chicken broth, or a piece of fruit. When I first moved to Mexico, I marveled at their ubiquity across all food groups. I bought street-cart fruit salad—a mixture of mango, papaya, orange and coconut—sliced up and served with chili, lime and salt. The two-dollar pre-fixe lunch menus at the fonda came with a soup, rice or pasta, and a choice of entree—usually between a milanesa, chicken or pork or beef in some sort of sauce, stuffed chilis, enchiladas, all inevitably accompanied by an ever-replenishing dish of lime wedges. The first time I walked through Mexico City’s Chinatown, I noticed dishes of limes adorning the sidewalk tables of restaurants selling lo mein and thick-sauced General Tsao’s chicken. Lime and salt complement a beer, whether as a salt-rimmed michelada, or as an ad-hoc addition from the dishes you also use to season a cantina’s complimentary popcorn or peanuts. On hot days in the city, vendors with shopping carts of soda, salt and limes gloss plastic cups with salt and then fill them with soft drinks. It sounds like a punchline: Mexicans add lime and salt to every food you can imagine—even water.
While both the seltzer and non-alcoholic beverage markets are booming in the U.S., I’ll choose salty, limey sparkling water over LaCroix, White Claw or kombucha cocktails any day. Suero is easy and unpretentious, no cocktail shaker or branding needed. The self-conscious healthfulness of non-alcoholic cocktails may be meant to assuage health-related anxieties, but it only deepens my preoccupations about what I consume. The promise of a guilt-free beverage reminds me that I should feel guilty about everything else I consume, most of the time. Instead, whether it settles my stomach or clears my head or corrodes my teeth or raises my blood pressure, I’ll dash salt into my soda water. I’ll watch the fizz bloom to the water’s surface and savor the burn of lime on my lip and hydrate with limón y sal.