Perfected at Gracia Cocina Mexicana with house-made totopos, this vivacious condiment is the perfect nutty buddy for meat, veggies, fish — or even ice cream.
FROM ARGENTINIAN chimichurri to Syrian muhammara, from Indonesian dabu-dabu to Portuguese piri-piri, the universe of condimentia is vast and varied.
Condiments usually are side dishes, but sometimes they have breakout potential. China’s Lao Gan Ma brand Sichuan chile crisp lately has achieved cult status here. With a similar oily heat, nutty crunch and facility as a utility player, Mexico’s salsa macha could be chile crisp’s next-of-kin.
I discovered salsa macha at Ballard’s Gracia Cocina Mexicana, but the sauce originated in Veracruz, which is where Gracia chef Chester Gerl first fell for it. At the time, he was on a research trip before opening Rosie’s, the Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village he helped launch with chef Marc Meyer.
Gerl has made more than half a dozen food-focused forays to different parts of Mexico, beginning with an immersion course, during culinary school, with Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef and Mexican food authority. The Gulf Coast state of Veracruz is one of Gerl’s favorites. He was especially drawn to the people, he says. “It’s more of a Mexican tourist destination than an American one. Everywhere we ate was awesome.”
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For centuries, trading ships visiting the port city of Veracruz expedited cross-cultural pollination. Spanish and Portuguese traders, as well as their slaves, introduced new foods and dishes from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. Peanuts took a particularly circuitous route, from Brazil to West Africa to the Caribbean and eventually to Veracruz, where they turn up in sauces for meat, fish and vegetable dishes, as well as in salsa macha.
Gerl includes peanuts in his salsa macha but also adds almonds and seeds: sesame, pumpkin and sunflower. He uses four types of dried chilies to get the well-rounded flavor he’s after. These ingredients, along with garlic, are browned in oil, brightened with apple cider vinegar, then pureed in a blender. (The word macha comes from machacar, meaning to crush or grind.) The result is a slightly crunchy, intriguingly bitter chile oil with hints of chocolate, tobacco and smoke.
You won’t find salsa macha on Gracia’s “chips and salsa sampler.” It gets the star treatment it deserves and a partner worthy of its complexity: house-made totopos, the fried surplus of the corn tortillas the restaurant makes fresh daily.
But this vivacious condiment can be more than just a dip. Bayless spoons it warm over grilled lamb chops. You could use it as a sauce for tacos, toss it with roasted potatoes or other vegetables, or drizzle some over scrambled eggs or a grain bowl. Thinned with olive oil, it could punch up a salad of sturdy greens. A viral craze for pouring chile crisp over soft-serve ice cream peaked over the summer in Chongqing and Chengdu. Why not try it with salsa macha? Sounds crazy, but another meaning for the word macha is “brave.”
The Ballard restaurant Gracia Cocina Mexicana serves this salsa as a dip with house-made totopos. You also could use it as a marinade or condiment for meat, fish and more.
Yield: 2.5 cups
2 cups canola oil
5 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon pepitas
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons peanuts
2 tablespoons almonds
3 guajillo chilies, stemmed and seeded
3 puya chilies, stemmed and seeded
3 ancho chilies, stemmed and seeded
3 chipotles, stemmed and seeded
4 cloves garlic, sliced
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1½ to 2 tablespoons sea salt, to taste
1. Remove and discard the stems and seeds from the chilies. The easiest way to do this is with kitchen shears. Snip off the stem ends, slice each from top to bottom, and scrape or let the seeds fall out. Cut each pepper into half-inch or quarter-inch pieces. (Use gloves or wash hands thoroughly after handling chilies.)
2. Combine oil, seeds and nuts in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, and cook for about 3 minutes, or until the nuts are golden brown. Add the chilies, and simmer for another minute. Add garlic, and simmer for another minute until browned. Remove pan from heat, let cool slightly, and carefully stir in vinegar and salt (it could splatter). Set aside to cool.
3. Transfer mixture to a blender, and puree until smooth or, if you prefer more texture, stop blending when it is slightly gritty. Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks. — Adapted from Gracia Cocina Mexicana