Herbs in Mexican Cuisine

A myriad of spices. That’s what makes for a distinctively Mexican dish. Many, or even most of Mexican recipes would be unthinkable without them.

Foremost and indispensable of all are the chili peppers, historically indigenous to the area. They are among the most ancient of Mexican spices, antedating the arrival of the Portuguese and Spaniards in the New World. Part of the Mexican diet for over 6,000 years, these self-pollinating, warm season vegetables were initially introduced to Asia and other territories via European trade and conquest.

The list of chili peppers is long. You are probably familiar with japaleno peppers as an ingredient in salsas and a condiment in pickled form. They are more delectable when used while green. They are among the relatively mild peppers, in terms of heat. In Mexico, they are also referred to as huachinango and sometimes as chili gordo. Then there’s the smaller, slightly hotter serrano pepper, which is typically eaten raw. The other authentic Mexican peppers range from the mildest, anaheim, to the habanero, used in bottled hot sauces. The Anaheim are variously known as California chili, Magdalena or New Mexico peppers, indicative of its place of origin. The habaneros are among the world’s hottest chilies. The other chilies come in varying degrees of fire and flavor.

Culantro, epazote and Mexican oregano are three common herbs native to the Americas. Culantro is used widely in Central America and the Caribbean but is largely unknown outside the region. Like many other Mexican spices, it is easier to find it now in the United States than it once was. Culantro has a flavor similar enough to the more available cilantro that the latter can be an acceptable substitute.

Epazote, on the other hand, has no real substitute. It tastes a little like tarragon, but its flavor is uniquely its own. This herb is typically used when cooking Mexican bean recipes, particularly black beans. Look for epazote in the produce aisle of Mexican groceries. If you cannot find it fresh, you might be able to find it dried in the spice section. If it’s just not available, go ahead and prepare the recipe sans epazote with a tolerable sigh!

Mexican oregano may taste like a stronger version of the familiar Greek oregano. But this herb is actually a close relative of lemon verbena. Its flavor is an important element in a number of Mexican dishes. But you can substitute the old world herb, if necessary. Fortunately, Mexican oregano is becoming easier to fine. You can purchase this herb from Mexican spice shops as well as Mexican groceries. Just like the Greek oregano, it is often used dried.

Cumin is a spice closely associated with Mexican cooking as it is with Greek, Turkish, and the cookery of other countries, specifically those of the Middle East. A member of the parsley family, this was first brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. This spice has a long history. As early as the history of Ancient Egypt, it was reportedly used as a preservative in the process of mummification. It will be remembered that Spain was once dominated by the Moors from the Middle East.

With its blending of old world and new world flavors, Mexican cuisine is among the first to offer the world its thriving fusion foods. Using ingredients from both Europe and the Americas, Mexican cooks created something new, unique, distinctly Mexican. This cuisine is a clever combination of traditional and indigenized local ingredients and aromatic spices. It has a flavor all its own. And it has become popular in nearly every part of the world. Thanks, for the most part, to the Mexican spices.

There are many different Mexican meals you can easily prepare yourself for your family. Delicious recipes are available at MexicanFoodRecipes.org. There you will also find cooking tips, an in depth guide to Mexican food, a unique look at the rich and colorful history of Mexican food and a lot more to capture your heart and palate.

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By Marco Lange
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