Tomatillo salsa with chile pasilla oaxaqueña

If there is one chile you need to try in your life, it’s the chile pasilla oaxaqueña.

The dried, wrinkly, pointy chile is almost cartoonishly smoky. It smells like a campfire, or like a match right after you’ve blown it out. And the taste! It’s woodsy and kind of fruity, and perfumed with smoke. Make a salsa with this baby and you’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted: acid. Heat. Fire. And just a little nudging of raisins and berries.

This chile is hard to find outside of Oaxaca. I didn’t realize that until I came back from Oaxaca thinking, “I’ll go to Mercado Medellín and pick up some pasilla oaxaqueñas!” and my guy didn’t have any. Ending up finding them at Mercado San Juan, for eight pesos each. I paid — that’s almost $1 per chile — because the pasilla is worth it.

This chile is also known as the mixe (pronounced MEE-hay) because it’s grown in the Sierra Mixe, which is a region east of Oaxaca City. In From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients, Diana Kennedy says the chiles are grown in such small batches that they’ll probably never be imported on a large scale. Interestingly, my sister- and brother-in-law in New York recently found a “pasilla de Oaxaca” salsa at their local grocery store, made by Rosa Mexicano.

If you haven’t tasted this chile before, I’d highly recommend making a table salsa. You can really do it any way you want, but the basic ingredients are the chiles and garlic. I don’t toast my chiles or add any onion, but you can. Really at the end you want to taste the pasilla as much as possible.

If you can’t find the pasilla oaxaqueña, this salsa also works with chile de árbol. Just make sure you use a good, hefty handful. Don’t be afraid about making the salsa too hot — the point of this dish is that the chile is the star.

Tomatillo salsa with chile pasilla oaxaqueña
Recipe first learned in Reyna Mendoza’s cooking class
Makes about 1 1/2 to 2 cups

Note: This tastes best at room temperature, so make sure you give it time to cool down before serving. Also, store your dried chiles in an air tight container, in a cool, dark place. Humidity enables mold growth.


1 pound tomatillos, husked and washed
1 or 2 unpeeled cloves garlic, depending on your preference
2 chile pasilla oaxaqueñas or 8 chile de árbol


Place the chiles in a shallow dish and cover with very hot water. In the meantime, dry-roast the tomatillos on a comal until they’re soft and blackened in spots, and have turned a dull green color. Toast the garlic as well, ideally on the outer edges of the comal so it doesn’t burn. You want it softened too.

Once the chiles have softened — perhaps 10 to 15 minutes; if you need more time or to replenish the hot water, that’s fine — carefully cut open the chiles and remove the seeds. Place the chiles in a blender jar with the garlic and just a little water, perhaps two or three tablespoons. Blend until smooth. Then add tomatillos and blend until you reach your desired consistency. (For me it’s about 5 to 10 seconds.) Add salt to taste. Serve the salsa at room temperature.

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10 Responses to “Tomatillo salsa with chile pasilla oaxaqueña”
  1. I just loved your description of this chile….

  2. gloria

    I love chili Pasilla and use it all the time. We even grow it. It is hard to grow because we don’t get the kind of weather needed for these chili’s but they do grow. I dried them last year and in fact not too long ago made some. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Ami

    This sounds amazing! Can’t wait to try it out myself….I’m going to have to try to hunt down these chiles in NYC :)

  4. Don Cuevas

    That’s a great salasa, Lesley. I’d made something like it a few times since I first saw it at a cooking class with Pilar Cabrera at La Casa de Los Sabores in Oaxaca.

    At the time, I bought some of those precious chiles pasillas de Oaxaca and I’m slowly rationing them out. It’s been a couple of years since we were there, and we may need to return this coming January.

    Don Cuevas

  5. Cooking in Mexico

    I have not added chile pasilla to my repertoire yet, but after reading this, I see it is time to start using it. Your salsa recipe is a great one to start with. Gracias.


  6. Notorious MLE

    Good to know they aren’t common. I’ll keep an eye out at my local mercados.

  7. Hola Lesley!

    Me encanta venir a visitar tu blog porque veo como poco a poco tu conocimiento de la gastronomia Mexicana va en aumento. Pero sabes que es lo mas hermoso? Que se ve como la disfrutas.

    Se ve muy rica tu salsa de chile pasilla, como para una carnita asada.

    Te envio un abrazo.


  8. Dakota

    I LOVE LOOOOVE your food posts, they’re so delicious and I love reading the articles.

    Besos from France

  9. Jessie

    I enjoyed making it although, to me, it was a bit bland. I might not have had the measurements correct. I added some coriander seed, cumin and sage actually? once I taseted the original recipe oh and I mashed it in an mocajate. I then decided that I think I would enjoy it more, baked in chicken, so I threw it on top of some frozen chicken I have that was pre stuffed with Garlic and marinated in Greek black olive juice..which I actually think might add a nice flavor to the salsa. I threw in a bunch of baby red, yellow and orange bell peppers on the side and around the chicken and the last tomatillo I found in the fridge that had escaped was cut up and placed on top as well as some baby onions I had with a few more cloves of garlic…all just stuff I had in the fridge. Going to put just a little bit of chicken broth in the bottom of the pan and just let it bake. Will let you know if it is turns out delicious or disastrous! J

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi Jessie: Thanks for reporting back. As far as bland goes, are you sure you used the Oaxacan pasilla, and not the regular pasilla? The two flavors are totally different. The regular pasilla — long and chocolate-colored — tastes much more earthy, with just a hint of bitterness. The Oaxacan pasilla is super hot, and very smoky and fruity. Just want to make sure you used the right thing! Also, if the salsa was bland to you, that usually means you need more acid or salt, or a combination of the two. (So more tomatillos, or a spritz of lime juice if they’re blah.) But your variation sounds interesting — let me know how it turns out!

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