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,” she tells HipLatina. “Through plants, I found a deeper connection to the foodways of my ancestors and better health. It became really empowering.”
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 said. “When I got deeper into my studies of curanderismo and ceremonial magick, I felt compelled to merge that knowledge and practice with my cooking.”
Vallejo 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,” Vallejo said.
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 said. “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 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.
Since she began hosting pop-ups throughout Los Angeles in 2011, she’s noticed the evolution of people of color embracing veganism specifically in Koreatown.
“In 2016 there was a boom of Brown-owned taco pop-ups,” she said. “It was then I knew veganism was here to stay.”
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. For one, Vallejo takes pride in fooling people into thinking her popular cashew-based Quesillo cheese is regular dairy cheese.
She also hopes to begin selling her own 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 more among POC, she does admit there’s still a lack of willingness to try vegan food, especially among older generations.
“The misconception that plant-based Mexican food is not ‘authentic’ is laughable. Colonialism is real and it is deeply ingrained,” she said.
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 L.A. Being ahead of the curve sometimes felt like a battle,” she said. “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.
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,” Vallejo said.