Vegan Chef Uses Indigenous Ingredients to Decolonize Mexican Food


Chef Denise Vallejo is proud of her indigenous roots and she’s showing it by taking Mexican recipes and reintroducing them with a vegan twist that incorporates ancestral ingredients. Through her mobile kitchen, Alchemy Organica, she’s ushering a movement for people to “decolonize their diet,” turning the idea of meat-heavy Mexican cuisine on its head by emphasizing its plant-based indigenous history.

She’s had no formal training but what she lacks in formal education she makes up for with passion and a deep knowledge of indigenous cuisine and holistic traditions. Since she became vegan in 2008, she’s been working to remind people that what she’s cooking is far more authentic than what many people think of Mexican food today.

“I knew I had to take my health back into my hands. Through plants, I found a deeper connection to the foodways of my ancestors and better health. It became really empowering,” she tells HipLatina.

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Flor de calabaza (Squash Blossom) has been around a long time. It’s estimated that this little prehispanic Xóchitl (flower) has been cultivated for at least 10,000 years. A staple in the Mesoamerican diet, flor de calabaza is high in vitamin C & Vitamin A, as well as calcium. A highly cherished plantita as its been shown all over ancestral codices & folk art. Male flowers are more commonly consumed while the female flowers eventually become the actual squash. It’s always a treat to get a few female flowers with tiny zucchinis attached. The flavor is subtle, and of course reminiscent of squash, and sometimes hints of popped corn! These are incredibly delicate flowers, so organic is always best because of how fragile they become with a light washing. The best and simplest way to showcase this delicate flower is in a quesadilla. Of course with our Cashew Quesillo, but I’m biased! In the spirit of Xochipilli we’ll be honoring this plantita Monday night at our Feastly pop up dinner. 🌼💖👁✨ – – – #alchemyorganica #visionaryplantfood #ancestralplantmagick #ancientwisdom #milpa #quelites #xochitl #xochipilli #ancestralknowledge #ancestraltechnology #plantworld #eatmoreplants #vegan #organic #plantbased #veganfoodshare #veganmexican #decolonize #veganchef #truecooks #plants

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Based in Koreatown and a Long Beach native, Vallejo, 37, was surrounded by Mexican cuisine growing up and in the 10 years she’s been working in this industry she’s been infusing “ancestral plant wisdom” into Mexican delicacies.

She’s spent more than 20 years studying ancient knowledge as a self-proclaimed occultist, including astrology, curanderismo, alchemy, and shamanism.

“I believe our ancestors were divinely connected to the earth, and through that connection, they understood the value of plants,” she says. “When I got deeper into my studies of curanderismo and ceremonial magick, I felt compelled to merge that knowledge and practice with my cooking.”

She once concocted a dinner inspired by astrological signs and hermetic tradition to develop flavors she felt conveyed the essence of each sign. The ethos of Alchemy Organica relies on medicinal properties of food and combining “intentionality, wisdom, and will to heal people on a holistic level.”

She likens her cooking experience to the beloved bestselling novel Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, where the food the protagonist makes is infused with her own emotions that are then transferred to the consumer.

“When people tell me my food is ‘grounding’ I feel like I’m doing something right,” she adds. 

Her cuisine centers around Mesoamerican staples including corn, beans, nopales, chiles, quelites and herbs, while introducing ingredients that aren’t commonly associated with Mexican cuisine. This includes superfoods that have been mainstreamed but are actually present in indigenous recipes like spirulina, chia, amaranth, and cacao.

“Our ancestors invented cooking methods like nixtamalization, which completely transforms corn into a digestible food, making it far more nutritionally viable than regular corn,” she says. “This process is what makes Nixtamal, which can be further cooked into hominy or ground into masa for tortillas, tamales, and ancestral beverages like Atole.”

Another trendy drink that was similarly present in indigenous recipes is kombucha, according to Vallejo. Their fermentation techniques made probiotic-rich drinks like Tepache, a pineapple flavored beverage similar to kombucha.

Her Instagram posts are completely in line with her brand, most recently when she decolonized the ever popular and super trendy avocado toast. The version she created includes organic slow-cooked pinto beans, guacamole, radish, shiitake chicharrón, micro cilantro, pickled onion, salsa, and edible flowers (a garnish she likes to use for flavor and presentation) on a grilled corn masa cake.

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Decolonize your avocado toast! This is the ORIGINAL avocado toast! Invented by indigenous womxn, no doubt! Tlazocamati to our innovative ancestors! Served on puro pinche organic maíz from our @kerneloftruthorganics fam. Would you expect anything less? Our decolonized avocado toast is simple and delicious: organic slow cooked pinto beans, guacamole, radish, shiitake chicharrón, micro cilantro, pickled onion, salsa, & edible flowers on a grilled corn masa cake (aka huarache). We’ll be bringing this baby back for our brunch this Tuesday! 💖👁✨ – – – #alchemyorganica #visionaryplantfood #ancestralplantmagick #mexica #plantbased #vegan #veganism #ancestralfood #organic #gastronomicheritage #ancientgastronomy #decolonize #indigenize #foodheritage #veganmexica #whatveganseat #vegansofig #veganfoodshare #xicana #truecooks #chefdriven #losangeles #highvibrationaldiet #followplants #resiliance #alchemize #koreatown #popup

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Since she began doing popups in 2011, she’s noticed the evolution of people of color embracing veganism specifically in Koreatown, a neighborhood in central Los Angeles where she regularly hosts pop-ups.

“In 2016 there was a boom of Brown-owned taco pop-ups. It was then I knew veganism was here to stay,” she says. 

Only 1 percent of Americans claimed to be vegan in 2014 and in 2017 that number jumped to 6 percent, according to a report by GlobalData. A similar spike occurred in the past year where sales of plant-based foods increased by 8.1 percent, topping $3.1 billion, according to research conducted by Nielsen.

The biggest seller is vegan cheese, which the global market estimated to be worth just under $4 billion by 2024, according to a report by research firm Bharat Book.

Vallejo takes pride in fooling people into thinking her popular cashew-based Quesillo cheese is regular dairy cheese.

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🙅🏻‍♀️SOLD OUT 🙅🏻‍♀️ Thanks everybody! I’ll be accepting orders again for the week of August 12th. Buy some Quesillo from me. I have like 8 orders up for grabs. You can pick them up from me this weekend in Los Angeles (Ktown)! DM me for details. $13 for 7oz of gooey, melting Quesillo style cheese made from cultured organic cashews. If you’re especially nice, I might throw in a tamal for good measure. 🙀🌱🧀 – – – Shout out to @picturesofgus @vegansfrommars @glibmartyr for primo content 👌🏼 #alchemyorganica #vegancheese #plantcraftedmexicancheese #veganquesillo #organic #veganmexican #visionaryplantfood #getniceorgohome

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She hopes to begin selling a whole line of Mexican-style plant-crafted cheese and sauces in retail and dreams of one day opening her own brick and mortar restaurant. 

Though veganism is slowly being embraced among POC, she does admit there’s still a lack of willingness to try vegan food, especially among elders.

“The misconception that plant-based Mexican food is not ‘authentic’ is laughable. Colonialism is real and it is deeply ingrained,” she says. 

Vallejo is a first generation Xicana who identifies as an Indigenous Nican Tlaca, with her family hailing from Mexicali in Baja California. Throughout her evolution in the vegan food industry, she’s made it a point to uplift ancestral recipes especially since she believes indigenous sauces, moles, and foods aren’t as highly regarded for their nuance, complexity, and innovation as their European counterparts.  

“I’m pretty proud of being a pioneer in our brown vegan movement here in LA. Being ahead of the curve sometimes felt like a battle,” she says. “I’m not discovering anything new. I’m only revitalizing our ancestral foodways by centering plants. Colonial Mexican food is what is mostly known and consumed.”

Despite working in an industry notoriously dominated by men, she credits her success to hard work and a network of women of color including Portland-based Peruvian vegan chef Antoanet “Toni” Aburto and her pop-up Chica Vegan and Genise Castañeda of vegan taco truck Plant Food for People.

She’s also not afraid to critique certain common practices within the vegan food industry, namely the use of premade soy beef slices and soy curls. She prefers natural and whole foods often using jackfruit and jelly mushrooms that mimic the hearty texture of meat.

Alchemy Organica

But, according to her, the most important ingredient isn’t tangible.

“When people ask me how I make my food taste so good, my favorite answer is brujería,” she says.

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