Sometimes, a single taste of something new has the ability to completely stop you in your tracks—to shake up your taste buds and spark your interest in a food or type of cuisine you don’t know much about. Trying salsa macha—a thick, spicy, nutty salsa that hails from the state of Veracruz in Mexico—did that for me.
I didn’t try it in Veracruz, but at Rolf and Daughters in Nashville. Our little table was packed full of small plates, but the one that captivated me the most was a simple salad of raw butternut squash, which was shaved into ribbons and tossed with salsa macha, fresh mint, and thin wisps of mimolette, an aged cow’s milk cheese from France. The salsa macha electrified the dish: its nutty, tangy spiciness the perfect foil to the sweet, earthy squash and sharp cheese.
That dish made me rush home and learn all I could about salsa macha.
The cookbook Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen by Gonzalo Guzmán and Stacy Adimando was a good place to start. There’s a whole chapter devoted to salsas (16 in total). The authors call salsa macha “a very special sauce,” one that’s traditionally made with peanuts coarsely ground with garlic, olive oil, and dried chiles, served with the regional quesadillas of Veracruz. Nopalito’s version opts for raw sunflower seeds, along with a generous amount of vinegar and dried oregano.
Salsa macha recipes from Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy, and Pati Jinich are similar to Nopalito’s, yet all distinct from one another, with different types of dried chiles (and levels of heat), seasonings, and methods. These differences undoubtedly reflect the variations that you’ll find from cook to cook throughout the region and country. Diana Kennedy’s version in My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey with Recipes forgoes nuts entirely but adds a full cup of beer (I’ve bookmarked it to try!).
I combined my favorite elements from these recipes to create my own version: the sunflower seeds from Nopalito’s, the technique of toasting dried ancho chiles in hot oil from Pati Jinich’s, and the zippiness of apple cider vinegar from Rick Bayless’s. I’ve kept a supply of it in my fridge ever since.
Here are delicious ways to use it: toss with roasted vegetables (it’s amazing with roasted carrots and broccoli); use as a dressing (thinned with a little olive oil) for salads, beans, and grain bowls; serve alongside grilled fish or steak; slather on grilled bread; drizzle over fried eggs; and, of course, dip tortilla chips in it. It’s elevated everything I’ve paired it with. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential.
I’ve also been using it to make these springy chicken tostadas. I took a cue from the shaved butternut squash salad at Rolf and Daughters and topped my tostadas with shaved asparagus and radish, lots of salsa macha, and crumbled queso fresco. They’re messy to eat, in the very best way. Omit the chicken for a vegetarian tostada, swap out the chicken for steak or pork, or change up the vegetables with the seasons. But always keep the salsa macha.
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs or breasts
- 2 pinches Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 4 cups cold water
- 1 handful Optional aromatics: any combination of sliced onion; sliced lime; smashed garlic clove; bay leaf; cilantro stems; peppercorns
- 1 small bunch of asparagus (about 1/2 pound), tough ends trimmed
- 3 to 4 large radishes, thinly sliced
- 1 lime, halved
- 1 dash extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 small (about 6-inch) corn tortillas
- 1 cup vegetable oil, for frying tortillas (or how much ever it takes to reach 1/4-inch in depth)
- 1 handful crumbled queso fresco or cotija, chopped cilantro, lime wedges (for serving)
For salsa macha:
- 1 cup olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 ounces dried ancho or guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeds removed and discarded, and cut into small pieces
- 1/2 cup unsalted sunflower seeds (raw are ideal, but roasted ones work too)
- 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- about 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, plus more to taste
- 3 pinches brown sugar (optional)