The Most Valuable Condiment of 2020: Salsa Macha

Every time I open the fridge — bored, peckish, frenzied, whatever the mood — I’m reassured by a small clutter of condiments. Preserved lemons from a neighbor’s tree. Sludgy garlic pickles in a distressingly greasy jar. Tubs of fermented bean pastes and bottles of fish sauce, mouths crusted with salty crystals.

Since March, when restaurants in California pivoted to takeout, this clutter has grown exponentially to include their homemade chile oils, kimchis, fermented hot sauces, fresh salsas and spice mixes. I haven’t sat down in a dining room since spring, and I don’t know when I’ll get to do it again, but in the meantime, some of my favorite kitchens have lent new essentials to my own. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine frying eggs, roasting vegetables or even halving an avocado right now without Carlos Salgado’s salsa macha on hand.

Salsa macha has its roots in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Oaxaca, and though it isn’t strictly defined, it usually has dried chiles and garlic, fried and chopped and held in its own deeply infused cooking oil. Vinegar is optional. Nuts and seeds are, too, but they often appear toasted and crushed, particularly sesame seeds and peanuts. Salgado’s restaurant Taco María, which he co-owns with his wife, Emilie Coulson Selgado, in Costa Mesa, occasionally sold the fruity, habit-forming salsa before the pandemic, when diners asked for it. But he started to officially jar and sell a few kinds after shutdowns in the area — along with his Caesar-salad dressing, radish pickles and a mole made with figs and toasted almonds.

It wasn’t an easy transition. The restaurant’s staff shrank to seven people from 24. The rules around dining changed, again and again. But Salgado kept seating closed — even outside. He was known for fine dining, for complex, precisely articulated dishes that went far beyond the composed tacos that drew me there for lunch. “I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s all totally unpredictable, and I’ve taken a reserved approach, a very safe approach,” Salgado said. He adapted to family-style takeout in the pandemic, selling pantry items and big portions of rice, beans and grilled meats with fresh tortillas to reheat and assemble at home.

In collaboration with the store Masienda, Salgado has made a salsa macha with chicatana, delicious winged ants, imported from Oaxaca, instead of nuts. And though he generally uses a neutral oil, he’s also made it with duck fat, beef fat and lard. When I talked recently with Denise Vallejo, a vegan chef who applies salsa macha to potato tacos at her pop-ups in Koreatown, she was testing a new version with pecans. The Los Angeles recipe developer Paola Briseño-González sometimes makes hers with cacao nibs, which intensifies both the fruit and the expansive edge of bitterness in some chiles. For many cooks, the sauce is a basic and versatile template that invites experimentation.

Salgado refers to the salsa machas he makes most often as his restaurant’s mother sauces. “We’ll add them to a marinade, a vinaigrette, or grab just the solids to change the spice character of something,” he said. Though he grew up with jars of chile oil, or chile de aceite, in the house — a hot salsa macha made with árbol chiles, oregano and garlic — my favorite of his is barely hot at all, built with ancho chiles and fermented black garlic, so mellow and fruity I could eat it with a spoon (and sometimes do). “How much time do you have?” Salgado said when I asked him if he could tell me what to watch for when making it at home.

He told me about the proper point of fry, the moment at which every ingredient is thoroughly toasted, taken right to its limit, but not burned: the small window when the dried chiles still taste like what they are, and the narrow range for the browned garlic, before it gives itself over to bitterness. “Toastedness, the roasty flavor, is really important, but that can quickly run away and produce flatter single-dimensional, reductive flavors,” he said. In other words, you don’t want to undertoast. But it’s even worse if you overtoast.

Salgado and his cooks fry each ingredient separately to make their salsa macha and strain the oil to clean it between ingredients (so a stray scrap of garlic doesn’t have the chance to overcook and flavor the whole salsa). They also rely on low heat, a heavy-bottomed pot, delicate stirring and constant tasting: the only way, in the end, to determine when the ingredients are peaking. The most reliable way to learn exactly where that point is is by waiting for it, so you’re definitely there when it appears — which it will, while you’re standing in front of your chiles and your garlic and your delicate seeds, watching over them, noticing the changes in their texture and flavor. If this seems like a lot of work for a jar of chile oil, that’s because it is. After learning to make salsa macha, I jarred some up for friends as holiday presents. It was well worth the effort, but I haven’t stopped buying it from restaurants I love, or cluttering up the fridge.