San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
This salsa packs heat & crunch
The Bay Area’s hottest condiment is a showcase for chefs’ creativity.
A bottle of salsa macha can be a stunning sight: It has layers of bright red chile oil, crunchy bits of dried chiles, goldenhued sesame seeds and crunchy, toasted pepitas. Each spoonful emerges with multiple textures, serious heat and notes of smoke, raisin and garlic — and this salsa style is becoming a go to for Bay Area chefs and home cooks looking for an easy way to jazz up dishes.
Originally from Veracruz but popular all over Mexico, salsa macha is typically a spicy oil made with dried chiles and often nuts or seeds. But there aren’t too many rules limiting how it’s made — or what it’s used for. Chefs recommend spooning macha onto just about anything, from fried eggs to avocado toast to congee. While many Bay Area cooks with roots in Mexico say they grew up eating salsa macha, they rarely saw it in local restaurants. Even just a few years ago, it seemed obscure. You might find it as a chile oil pooling below charred broccoli at a Tacos Oscar popup in Oakland or on the side of a veggie quesadilla at Nopalito in San Francisco.
But now, it’s suddenly everywhere — and local makers are getting creative with the genre, bottling salsa machas with different nuts and seeds, and even blending them into emulsified, molelike sauces. It’s one part of a growing salsa movement in the Bay Area, with makers saying they’re tired of the subpar selections at many local markets and taquerias, where often the only options are red or green.
“We have amazing Mexican restaurants in the Bay Area, but they never deliver on the salsa,” said Janeen Mendoza Cruz, coowner of Oakland salsa company Kuali. “For us, salsa is the most important thing at any meal when you’re eating Mexican food.”
Cruz started Kuali in 2019 after countless coworkers and friends suggested her husband, Rodrigo Cruz Ayala, sell his homemade salsas like roasted chipotle morita, creamy avocado and salsa macha. But Kuali didn’t immediately take off, and no one seemed to be interested in salsa macha. Next to a fresh salsa, salsa macha’s chileoil appearance might have confused some, said Cruz, who suspects most people in the Bay Area had never heard of macha before and didn’t understand it.
So they took a break and relaunched Kuali during the pandemic with an emphasis on their classic salsa macha with pumpkin seeds, something Ayala’s mom always paired with pozole at home in Mexico City. Cruz put more effort into marketing and social media this time around, and macha quickly became their bestseller — 68% of customers said in a survey that they’d never tried any salsa macha before buying from Kuali. Now, a wait list for salsa macha keeps growing; Ayala is cranking out 100 to 200 jars every week.
“I understood the potential of salsa macha. The shelf life is amazing,” said Cruz. “And it goes with everything. You marinate with it. You cook with it.”
Salsa macha seemed to take on a life of its own during the pandemic. Since salsa macha lasts six months in the fridge — and makes just about anything taste better — it became a secret weapon for beleagured home cooks. In that sense, its rise feels similar to another spicy, crunchy condiment that soared in popularity during the pandemic: Chinese chile crisp. While chile crisp might be more widely known now, it’s salsa macha that the New York Times named the most valuable condiment of 2020.
Fittingly, many Bay Area restaurants and popups have begun bottling salsa macha, too. San Francisco’s eclectic Son’s Addition tops charred cauliflower tacos with a peanutlaced salsa macha and now sells it by the jar. Oakland popup Tacos el Precioso started pairing salsa macha with fried egg tacos a couple of years ago, but the jars truly flew during the pandemic.
“We have a hard time keeping it in stock,” said Devin González of Tacos el Precioso, who makes about three gallons every two weeks. “People are just addicted to it.”
What’s remarkable is how the new salsa machas in the Bay Area are often totally different from one another — a true showcase of chefs’ creativity. Chris Chapman of popup Tacos Everywhere said this is typical of salsas in general. Salsa macha just happens to be the chosen canvas right now.
“If you’re making a béchamel in France, they’d say there’s only one way to make it … whereas salsas in general can be more expressive of the individual time and place,” he said.
At its most basic level, salsa macha comes down to chiles and oil — but there can be a lot of variation with just those two ingredients. Most chefs prefer a neutral oil like grapeseed or sunflower to let the chiles shine, but González enjoys the fruitiness extravirgin olive oil adds to the mix. And the temperature of the oil is key, Ayala said. You want the chiles to fry so they release their truest, toastiest expression of themselves, but if the oil is too hot, you can easily burn the batch.
Then chefs figure out how to blend chiles like ancho, arbol, cascabel, morita and pasilla to create the desired flavor profile, with each chile offering its own fruity, smoky, sweet and spicy notes. While some chefs willingly share what chiles they use, others keep them a closely guarded secret.
The proportion of chiles to oil makes a difference, too. Some chefs prefer it more oily, others like a fudgy paste. In a rare move, Chapman whirls his in a blender until it’s emulsified like mayonnaise, though he’s also experimenting with a salsa macha chile crisp version.
Most chefs build up flavor with aromatics like garlic and shallots. In the case of González’s almond salsa macha, flakes of smoked singleorigin salt from Mexico contribute crunch in addition to heightening flavor. Chapman adds apple vinegar and honey for sweet, tangy complexity.
From there, many like to add nuts and seeds for texture. Sesame seeds and peanuts are classic. Kuali and Tacos Everywhere both make versions with pumpkin seeds. For Eder Ramirez of Oakland popup Cocina Maíz, changing up the nuts felt like the best way to make his macha stand out in an increasingly crowded field. His recipe is based on the version his Oaxacan parents made, though he swaps out the peanuts and almonds for sweet, piney pistachios.
“I love pistachios and they’re used in a lot of different cuisines, but I don’t see them a lot in Mexican food,” he said. “I think the flavor of the pistachios just made it pop in a different way.”
Most of these chefs want to see their salsas populating small markets, to dramatically improve the meals home cooks throw together without much time or forethought. But it’s often a deeply personal effort, too.
Ramirez pushed himself to recreate his mother’s and grandmothers’ recipes when he left the Central Valley for Oakland, alone for the first time and wanting to connect to his Oaxacan identity. For Ayala, Kuali conjures memories of his mom, who died three years ago.
“The way I connect with my mom is the way I cook,” he said. “Making the salsa brings her back into my life.”