Spicy and smoky, this beloved and versatile Mexican condiment packs a plethora of flavors and textures.
Published Sept. 18, 2023.
In Mexico, salsa macha is a do-it-all condiment offered at taquerias, cantinas, and marisquerías (shellfish restaurants). And it’s also made and served at home. People drizzle it over tacos or pizza, add it to eggs, and in some cases, use it as a marinade for meat and seafood. While salsa macha has long been a kitchen staple in Mexico, jarred versions are increasingly available in American supermarkets and specialty shops. To learn more about this salsa, we purchased and tasted 16 different kinds with a range of ingredients and heat levels and interviewed chefs, journalists, and cookbook authors.
Unlike the more ubiquitous tomato and tomatillo-based salsas of Mexico, salsa macha is oil-based and marked by its spicy and smoky character. There are variations within the category too. It ranges in color from ruby-red to chocolate brown and varies in texture from a smooth, oily paste to a mix of crunchy nuts swimming in umami-rich oils. Regardless of the brand, salsa macha packs hearty flavors, melding dried chiles, nuts, and seeds with punchy garlic, and it’s good on just about everything.
Salsa macha is believed to have originated in Veracruz, a port city nestled on the Gulf of Mexico, where merchants from Africa, Europe, and South America came via the Caribbean Sea to trade. “Veracruz was like the New York City of Mexico,” said Rick Martinez, author of the Mexican cookbook Mi Cocina (2022).
The concentration and intermingling of trade resulted in Veracruz becoming an incredible mixture of cultures, ideas, and cuisines that built upon indigenous foodways but also “pull[ed] influences from Spanish, African, French, Cuban, and other Caribbean cultures,” he added. Once they reached Mexico, spices and produce from the old world, such as sesame and garlic, became essential for daily cooking. “The indigenous peoples of Veracruz have a fried chile de árbol salsa with cacahuate [Nahuatl word for ‘peanuts’], which might be the predecessor of what’s known as salsa macha today,” explained journalist Bill Esparza, author of L.A. Mexicano (2017). Martinez also emphasized that Veracruz was an agricultural state, where lush mountains and vast arable lands provided an ideal environment for growing chiles (notably the jalapeño, which when smoked becomes a chipotle), cacao, vanilla, and peanuts. With the mingling of this locally grown produce, salsa macha was born.
The name “macha” comes from the Spanish word “machacar,” meaning to break, grind, and pulverize. The most basic form of salsa macha has four main elements: dried chiles, oil, garlic, and nuts.
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Valerie is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews. In addition to cooking, she loves skiing, traveling, and spending time outdoors.