Simple Oaxacan chile pasilla salsa


October 12, 2011Recipes20 Comments

Whenever I have visitors in town or I want to wow dinner guests, I break into my stash of Oaxacan pasilla chiles. I’ve been obsessed with this chile for the past year — unlike the regular chile pasilla, or even the chipotle or mora for that matter, they’re intensely smoky, raisiny, fruity.

My friend Ian was visiting last weekend, so I asked him whether he wanted to make oaxacan pasillas rellenos (someday I’m going to post that recipe for you, it’s divine) or salsa. He chose the latter. I’ve posted a recipe previously for oaxacan pasilla salsa with tomatillos, so we thumbed through Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s excellent book Salsas Mexicanas for another.

The one we found was simple: a mix of rehydrated chiles, garlic and salt. My mouth watered just thinking about it — can you imagine the flavor without the acidity from the tomatoes? It would be a smoke-tobacco-fruit fest.

With Ian on the tejolote, we threw comal-roasted garlic, sea salt and the rehydrated pasillas into the molcajete. He ground everything together for perhaps 20 minutes, adding a few dribbles of water when it looked too thick.

The result was a gorgeous, deep red paste. We dipped our noses closer to the molcajete, inhaled, and sighed. It was as smoky and intense as we’d imagined. We ate the salsa with totopos I’d made from old tortillas baked in the oven. The next day, I spooned some onto my quesadillas.

If you can’t find the Oaxacan chile pasilla, you could try substituting chile chipotle or morita. The basic idea of letting the chile shine with a little bit of garlic is a good one, I think.

Simple Oaxacan chile pasilla salsa
Makes about 1 very spicy cup

Note: The original recipe didn’t call for roasting the garlic on the comal, but we did it anyway, because Ian and I both prefer the taste. The original recipe also called for keeping the seeds and grinding them in the salsa, but we only added a pinch. It’s still very hot.

If you’re substituting dried chipotles, I’d stick with three large ones. Canned chipotles tend to be a little hotter, but you might try using three and see what happens. (Or start with two large ones and go from there.) If you’re using dried moras, which tend to be smaller, I’d do perhaps five or six.

You could also make this salsa in a blender, if you don’t have a molcajete. If you do have one, I’d use it, as you get more control over the texture/consistency.

My ideal consistency here was a thick sauce — thinner than tomato paste, but not as runny as a taquería salsa. In any case, the consistency doesn’t matter so much, because it’s going to taste good no matter what.


4 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 oaxacan chile pasillas* (see note)
sea salt to taste

Heat a comal or dry skillet on the stovetop. Add garlic cloves to the outer edge of the pan, where the heat isn’t so intense, and cook until golden brown and soft on both sides, turning occasionally. If you leave them too long on the comal and they blacken in spots, just shave off the those pieces with a knife. You don’t want them because they’re bitter.

Meanwhile, use a dish towel to rub off any dust that might have collected on the chiles. Add them to the comal and quickly toast, until the skin has softened slightly and the chiles become aromatic. This should take maybe 10 or 15 seconds at the most.

Remove the chiles to a work space. Using kitchen shears, cut off the chile stems, slice open the chiles, and remove the seeds and veins. Save a few seeds on the side, if you’d like to add them to your salsa later. (Do NOT use your fingers to de-seed/de-vein — the seeds are super hot. I’d use a knife or little spoon.) Cover the chiles with hot water and let rest until the skin has softened, perhaps 10 minutes.

Peel the garlic. In a molcajete, add the garlic and a pinch of sea salt. Grind together until it forms a paste. Then add the chiles, one at a time unless you’re a whiz on the molcajete. Grind each chile until you no longer see big pieces of chile skin, and you’ve got a uniform paste. Add more water as you go, if it looks too thick.

Taste for salt. Serve at room temperature with your favorite chips, tacos or quesadillas.

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20 Responses to “Simple Oaxacan chile pasilla salsa”
  1. gloria

    It does sound devine Lesley!! Yum, quero salsa. You know I have so many chili’s in my sink right now of different varieties and I’ve already given away loads, frozen some, and made some. You salsa sounds and looks great. I will have to look up that Salsas Mexicanas book. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Michael

    Sounds great. I always roast the garlic. We have road trip from Cozumel to Oaxaca in Nov.-Dec. Hope to finally buy a good molcajete. Any tips on where?

    • Lesley

      Hi Michael: I haven’t traveled to Oaxaca as much as I would’ve liked. I do know that the Tlacolula Sunday market has fabulous metates and molcajetes, painted in bright colors. You could also try the big central market in Oaxaca City’s center — I haven’t been, but even my neighborhood market in Mexico City (Medellín) has them, so I’m sure that market would too. Norma Hawthorne of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator might be a good person to ask, too. I think she’s based in Teotitlan del Valle.

  3. Luisa Lander

    Hola Lesley,

    I know there’s a store in the Centro Histórico of el DF, near the Cathedral, that sells ingredients from Oaxaca, but I seem to have mislaid the address. Do you know it? Gracias.

    • Lesley

      Hi Luisa: I believe it’s Calle Santísima. There are a bunch of Oaxacan stores, actually — here’s a great PDF with descriptions and addresses. If you’re going to go, let me know, I’d love to join you and see what they have. You can also find the Oaxacan chile pasilla at Mercado San Juan, for 8 pesos per chile.

  4. perudelights

    My grandmother, in El Salvador, used to prepare this wonderful sauces. They were magical. In Peru we are very fond of sauces but use our own varieties of chiles and no tomatillos. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Ben

    Are these the chiles we got at Mercado San Juan for 10 pesos each? I still need to use mine. This salsa sounds amazing!

    • Lesley

      Yep, the very same chiles. The price is now 8 pesos a piece, or at least it was the last time I was there. The salsa is amazing — you should try it.

  6. S@sha

    My mom brings home a stash of those chiles every time she travels to Oaxaca. Just opening the cupboard they are stored in releases that smokey scent. So amazing. Wish I had some here.

  7. Dmarie

    ooh, that looks rich!! yum!

  8. Maria

    Looks yummy, I didn’t know you could freeze chiles…. can any kind be frozen?

  9. Eliot Vestner

    I tried to make salsa with pasilla chiles (5 dried, toasted, seeded, soaked and chopped), tomatillos (9 roasted) and 4 cloves garlic (toasted), all blended in a blender. I added some salt. It was tasteless and disappointing. What did I do wrong? The chiles were dried from Fiesta, descrited as “mild and flavorful.” I was looking for a fresh, spicy salsa. Thanks for your help.

    • Lesley

      Hi Eliot: The regular pasilla chile sold at Fiesta is different from the Oaxacan chile pasilla. I apologize if that wasn’t clear in my post. The regular pasilla is not smoked, although it does have lovely notes of chocolate and tobacco. The Oaxacan chile pasilla is extremely smoky, with more berry-like notes. They’re two very different flavors. That aside, a regular pasilla-tomatillo salsa should work well together, and it should also be hot. (Just not as hot as the Oaxacan one.) Maybe you could try a different chile at Fiesta? A chile de árbol or a morita, if they sell them? Here is a recipe for chile de árbol salsa with roasted tomatoes, in case that’s helpful.

      I also wonder about the amount of acid, and whether it was too much or too little. Usually when I’m experimenting with a salsa, I blend the aromatics (garlic and/or onion) with the chiles first, and then taste. Do I want a more pronounced chile flavor? Are the chiles hot enough? At that point I will add more chiles to make it spicier, if needed; and then the acids (tomatillo or tomato), one by one into the blender, tasting after each whir until I have just the flavor I want. I don’t actually like a lot of acids in my salsa anymore — I want a much more pronounced chile flavor.

      Another suggestion… are you sure you added enough salt? Most of the time when my salsa tastes off, it’s because I didn’t add enough salt. Salsas are very salty, or at least the good ones in Mexico are. Plus I’ve found that if you’re blending warm ingredients, the saltiness tempers a bit as the sauce cools. So you may want to add just a pinch extra if your ingredients are still hot from the comal.

      Let me know if you have any other questions, I’m happy to help.

  10. Eliot Vestner

    Leslie. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I will try the salsa with the chile de arbol and see how that works. I also find that sometimes when I make salsa it turns out too watery (as with roast tomatillo salsa) and I have to run it through a strainer, save the solids and throw out the juice.
    I like your suggestion to try just the chiles and garlic first, taste it, and add the tomatoes or tomatillos one by one. I will try that as well. Thank you for your kind help! Eliot.

  11. Churpa

    Tried the recipe and it turned out awesome. Thank you!

    • Lesley

      I’m so glad! You’re welcome!

  12. Kristofer

    I’ve heard so much about these wonderfully smoky pasilla de Oaxaca chiles. Any suggestions on where to find them in the NYC area or online?

    • Lesley

      Hi Kristofer: I actually wrote an article on this very subject for Mamiverse, an online portal for Latinas. You can find them at Pendery’s and The Chile Guy — the story should have the direct links. Good luck!

  13. Jim

    I’ll be on the lookout for these chiles locally – I haven’t seen them before. I was curious enough to google them – and you can find them at world spice dot com – but I warn you they are much pricier than 8 pesos there. They’re available at another website I saw, at a seriously ridiculous price – google them if you want some sticker shock. :)

    • Lesley Tellez

      Thanks, Jim. As of now I am lucky enough to bring a few back every time I’m visiting Mexico. (I also gift to friends nearby.)

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