Wednesday, February 21, 2024

From mild to wild, salsa macha takes you on a next-level flavor ride

If you like chili crisp, you’re going to love salsa macha, a traditional Mexican condiment enjoyed by diners all over the country. This tangy delight — a combination of dried chiles, fried garlic, toasted nuts and seeds — earned the 2020 Most Valuable Condiment Award from The New York Times Magazine, and it’s easy to see why. 

The meaning behind the name is up for debate. Some say “macha” stems from the verb “machacar,” referring to its traditional preparation method of being crushed in a molcajete. Others claim the name comes from the “macho” courage needed to handle its intense spiciness. 

The roots of salsa macha can be traced back to Orizaba, a city in Veracruz, where the indigenous Totonacs first ground dried chili peppers with salt, to obtain a spicy, oil-free paste. The Olmecs of Oaxaca also concocted something similar, with the addition of palm oil. The modern version of salsa macha, like so much of Mexico, is a fusion that evolved post-colonization, as olive oil and garlic were brought to America from Spain and added to traditional recipes. 

Salsa macha traditionally incorporates a variety of dried chiles, – though usually some combination of chile de árbol, ancho, morita and chipotle. A generous amount of oil, often a neutral variety like grapeseed or olive oil, provides a luscious texture which is lovely drizzled on its own, scooped up when the ingredients have sunk to the bottom of the jar. 

The sauce has a long shelf life because oil is a great medium for preservation – although a jar of this versatile salsa won’t last long in your pantry because you’ll be tempted to add it to almost everything you cook. 

The key feature of this salsa is the delightfully crunchy nuttiness, imparted by the peanuts and sesame seeds. The more experimental cooks among us are encouraged to instead try adding pumpkin seeds, walnuts or pecans for varying textures and flavors.

The rest of the sauce is a beautiful intermingling of ingredients. Garlic plays a crucial role in enhancing the savory notes of Salsa Macha. Sliced and fried until golden brown, it contributes both aroma and depth of flavor. A dash of vinegar adds acidity to balance the richness of the oil and provide a subtle tangy undertone. Light brown sugar is sometimes added to provide a touch of sweetness, harmonizing with the heat and enhancing the overall flavor profile. Sea salt is used to bring out all the natural flavors.

While there are some good store-bought alternatives, adventurous chefs may want to try making their own. Crafting your salsa macha from scratch allows you to tailor its spice and crunch to your liking. Feel free to adjust the ingredients to suit your taste, playing with the chile varieties, or swapping in different seeds or nuts. 

Salsa macha traditionally incorporates a variety of dried chiles. (Freepik)

Crunchy and smoky salsa macha

  • 2 cups olive or grapeseed oil
  • 8 dried ancho chile peppers, stems and seeds removed
  • 4 dried morita chile peppers, stems and seeds removed
  • 2 dried chiles de árbol, stems and seeds removed
  • 6 garlic cloves peeled and sliced
  • ⅔ cup roasted peanuts
  • 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
  • Sea salt, to taste

In a heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium low heat. Add the chiles and fry, stirring often, for about 8 minutes until the chiles are puffed. Using a slotted spoon, transfer chiles to a bowl. 

Add the garlic to the oil and cook over low, stirring often until toasted golden brown. Be watchful to avoid burning the garlic. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the garlic to the bowl with the chiles.

Add the peanuts and sesame seeds to the oil and fry until very lightly browned. Add the vinegar and sugar, and let the vinegar completely evaporate, about 1 minute.

Turn off the heat, add the chiles and garlic back to the skillet and stir to combine. Allow the entire mixture to cool in the pan, about 15 minutes.

Once cooled, briefly blitz in a blender or food processor until the nuts and chiles are chopped but before any ingredient becomes a paste. You can also reserve some of the nuts to add back at the end of the blitzing, leaving them whole. Season to taste with sea salt. 

Whether you’re a spice enthusiast or just looking to add some sizzle to your culinary repertoire, salsa macha is a great way to turn your taste buds into a dance floor. Embrace the fiery fiesta of flavors, let the heat serenade your senses, and remember – salsa macha isn’t just a condiment; it’s a game-changer.

Sandra is a Mexican writer and translator based in San Miguel de Allende who specializes in mental health and humanitarian aid. She believes in the power of language to foster compassion and understanding across cultures. She can be reached at: [email protected] 

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