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Why Bricia Lopez’s Vegan Aciento Is Genius

Round, golden brown acientos with green leafy garnishes spread out over a plate and cutting board.
Rocky Luten

For any of the reasons you might want to eat less meat, this recipe is here for you.

If you’re a lifelong vegan and don’t have much use for meat in the first place, it will just make your food more delicious. Easy.

But even if you were raised like me, with crispy pork in your DNA, you will find this spread uncannily reminiscent of the rich, savory flavor of carnitas or braised pork belly.

It’s a new-age form of aciento (or asiento), which is essentially a roasty chicharrón butter, and the traditional Oaxacan way to make the most of the whole pig.

Peeled garlic cloves and several glass gars of seeds sitting on a wooden cutting board.
Rocky Luten

“Think of it as Oaxacan brown butter,” Bricia Lopez writes in her lush, sun-hugged cookbook Oaxaca. “It is amazingly flavorful and really completes a lot of masa-based Oaxacan dishes such as tlayudas, memelas, empanadas, and chochoyotes,” adding not just flavor but a crunchy layer of texture.

At Guelaguetza, the James Beard Award–winning L.A. institution Bricia co-owns with her siblings, they serve it on their vegetarian tlayuda, a wide corn tortilla thick with toppings that some describe as the Oaxacan version of pizza.

And with encouragement from Bricia in this video, I learned how easy (and thrilling!) it is to make your own memelas, thick and ridgy hand-formed masa boats somewhere between a torta and a gordita. (You can also simply smear it on a warm corn tortilla and call it breakfast.)

What is this mysterious alchemy that turns vegetable into animal into gold? It’s so simple that it makes me think we could use Bricia’s trick in all kinds of places we want to add rich depths of toasty Maillarding and umami without leaning on meat or fish or butter.

Garlic cloves immersed in bubbling oil in a pan.
Rocky Luten

Ready? Fry up a pile of garlic cloves. Next, blend a skilletful of well-toasted seeds and nuts into a powder. Then, blend them all together, and you’re ready to smear a warm memela (or whatever you can get your hands on).

It doesn’t taste like roasted garlic paste or nut butter, despite the strong personalities each ingredient brings. Instead, they meld into an inseparable whole, with a singular flavor of its own: aciento.

Vegan Aciento (& Memelas) from Bricia Lopez

To make the aciento:

• 20 cloves garlic (generous 2 ounces/60 grams), peeled
• 1 1/2 cups (310 grams) nonhydrogenated vegetable shortening
• 1 cup (130 grams) pumpkin seeds
• 1 cup (140 grams) sunflower seeds
• 1/4 cup (36 grams) peanuts (preferably raw—see note in step 2), skin removed, if any
• 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

To make the memelas:

• 2 cups masa harina corn flour (Bricia Lopez recommends Bob’s Red Mill)
• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
• 1 1/2 to 2 cups hot water
• 1/4 cup (80 g) aciento
• 10 ounces (280 g) crumbled cashew cheese
• Watercress or purslane (tossed in a bit of olive oil and citrus vinegar, if you like)

See the full recipe on Food52.

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