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Cooking salsa macha evokes a less surreal time

While it’s hard to get a bad meal anywhere in Mexico City, my favorite places to eat when I visit are the outdoor markets. The food is like something from a Hemingway novel – simple, honest, and good. Customers cram themselves around long tables on small plastic chairs, sharing bowls of salsa – a memory that seems surreal in the time of COVID-19.

My first time in one of these markets, I picked a stall for its jars of a salsa I had never seen before. It was deep red, almost black, with green pumpkin seeds and golden peanuts poking through. It was hot, but also sweet and earthy from the dried peppers. The nuts and seeds gave nice textural contrast against both the tacos and the ground chiles. It was good enough to eat by the spoonful, but also a perfect complement to the food. I learned from the cook that it was called salsa macha. I bought three jars.

Lesley Thayer with a jar of fresh, homemade salsa macha.

Lesley Thayer with a jar of fresh, homemade salsa macha. Image by (Credit:Eric Oliff)

Months later, I took a cooking class with Oscar Carrizosa of Casa Crespo (10/10 recommend), and asked him to teach me how to make salsa macha. I have continued to make it almost every week since our return from Oaxaca, tweaking the recipe to suit my taste along the way. I eat it by the spoonful, or drizzled onto fried eggs, pizza, roasted vegetables (carrots especially), or any other available substrate.

For me, a spoonful evokes those memories, bringing the surreal back to life.

Salsa Macha

Makes about 3 cups

3 oz dried chiles (ancho, guajillo, chipotle, chiles negros, cascabel, pasilla, etc.)*
3 T golden raisins
1/3 + 1/4 c mix of raw nuts (I like to use pumpkin seeds, cashews, and peanuts)
3 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 + 3 T sesame seeds
lots of neutral-flavored oil, preferably with a high smoke point
3 T apple cider vinegar
1 t oregano

Use scissors to remove the stems, seeds, and ribs from the chiles. Cut or tear them into large, flat pieces.

Heat a ¼-inch deep layer of oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over high heat. Fry the garlic until light brown, remove to a blender. Fry ⅓ c of the nuts / seeds in batches by type (they will cook at different rates) until deep golden brown.

Add to the blender. Fry 2 T sesame seeds until golden brown. Pour, along with the oil, into the blender. Add the raisins, vinegar, and oregano to the blender as well.

Lower the heat to medium, and toast the chiles in a single layer until they puff up and change color (this will happen fast). As the chiles finish toasting, add them to the blender as well.

Pour any oil remaining in the pan into the blender. Add enough oil so that you can blitz the mixture to a relatively smooth texture. Fry the remaining 1/4 c of seeds/nuts + 2 T sesame seeds until golden. Stir into salsa.

*: I don’t specify chile types. It can be hard to find dried chiles of any kind in markets and I don’t want you to be turned off because you can’t find the “right” chiles. Make this with whatever is available to you – I have yet to find a bad combination! The important thing is to start small with the spicy chiles – it’s much easier to make it spicier than the other way around.

Lesley Thayer lives and cooks in Seattle. Want her recipe for Persian sabzi kuku? It’s here.


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