Spices are an important element of Mexican cuisine that go way beyond taco seasoning. There are so many complex dishes and stews that rely heavily on just the right combination of spices, like a good mole poblano. Furthermore, you can also find spices in baked goods, like the sweet aroma of anise in a soft and pillowy pan dulce.
When using spices, it is better to grind them yourself if possible. The flavor of freshly ground spices is far superior than the ground ones you can buy at the grocery store. Some recipes even call for dry toasting the spices for coaxing out the flavors.
The following is a guide to the most commonly used spices in Mexican cuisine:
The orange-red seeds of the annatto tree, native to the tropical areas of the Americas. The seeds are dried and ground to a powder, or made into a paste. Its flavor is sweet and earthy, and it pairs well with citrus. It is a primary spice in the cuisine of Yucatan, Mexico, used in savory dishes and stews.
The dried unripe fruit of the pimento dioica tree, native to Southern Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. It has the flavor of cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg combined, thus the name allspice, and it can be paired with those same spices. It is used mainly in central and Southern Mexico in adobos and pipianes (seed-based sauces). It is thought that the Mayans used it for embalming due to its fragrant aroma.
The seed of a flowering plant native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southeast Asia. Its flavor can be compared to licorice, fennel or tarragon. It pairs well with cinnamon and vanilla. In Mexico, it is used mainly in cakes, cookies and sweet breads, like the famous pan de muerto, and the unforgettable anise cookies. It is also one of the ingredients of mole. In the past, babies were given anise tea to calm their colic.
The fresh or dried leaves of the Mexican avocado trees. Their flavor is reminiscent of anise and hazelnut. It is used in Southern and Central Mexico to flavor bean tamales. Make sure your avocado leaves are from Mexican trees – the trees of other countries have been known to be toxic!
A mixture of dried ground chiles. In Mexico, chile powder is used as a condiment to flavor fruits and vegetables, or as an ingredient in candy. It is different than the chili powder commonly used to make chili in the US and Canada. To make savory dishes, whole dried chiles are used instead. You could use chile powder as a quick substitute for dry chiles, but make sure to buy the powders made from one variety of chile. For example, if the recipe calls for chipotle chiles, use chipotle chile powder.
The dried inner bark of evergreen trees native to Sri Lanka. In Mexico, only Ceylon cinnamon or true cinnamon is used, which is different from Cassia cinnamon (what is most readily available in the United States and Canada). Its flavor is hot and aromatic. It is used in a variety of baked goods and desserts, to make café de olla, to candy sweet potato, and in mole among other things. Many Mexican households boil water and cinnamon to mask unwanted odors in the kitchen.
The flower buds of an evergreen tree native to Indonesia. Its flavor is intense yet sweet, and even a little bitter. In Mexican cuisine, you will most likely see it paired with cumin and cinnamon in savory dishes. You can also find it used in baked goods, and to flavor moles and pipians.
The whole dried seeds of the cilantro plant native to various regions from southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia. Coriander has a floral, citrusy, and sweet flavor, and it pairs well with cumin, thyme, and black pepper. In Mexican cuisine, it is used to flavor chorizo and it can also be found in soups and stews.
The seed of a flowering plant native to the East Mediterranean and South Asia. It has a strong distinctive earthy flavor with bitter undertones, and it pairs well with coriander and dried chiles. In Mexico, it is used in sauce and stews. However, it is not used as prevalently as it is in Tex-Mex cuisine.
While technically an herb, epazote in its dry form is used as a spice. The plant is native to Mexico and Central and South America. Its flavor is pungent with notes of anise, oregano, citrus, and mint. It is used primarily to flavor black beans in most of Mexico, but it can also be used in sauces. It is thought that cooking beans with epazote aids in their digestion (aka reducing the gas they often cause).
Mexican Bay leaf
The dried leaves of an evergreen shrub native to Mexico. Its flavor is slightly floral, herbal, and a bit bitter, similar to oregano and marjoram. In Mexico, it is used extensively in soups, stews, broths, and rice. It is also used for medicinal and religious purposes.
The flowering plant in the verbena family native to the Southern United States, Mexico, and Central America. It has a pungent flavor with hints of licorice and citrus. It pairs well with paprika, cumin, and chile peppers. In Mexican cuisine, it is used to flavor beans, soups, and stews. Mexican oregano is different from Mediterranean oregano, so make sure the label says Mexican oregano when you purchase it!
The pod of a flowering vine in the orchid family native to Mexico and South America. Its flavor is sweet, yet smoky. It is often paired with cinnamon and clove. In Mexico, it is used extensively in desserts like flan, ice cream, cake, and to make hot chocolate. You can also find it in savory dishes, especially in the Veracruz region. Legend has it that Totonac princess, Tzacopontziza, destined to live a consecrated life to the goddess Tonacayohua, fell in love with prince Zkatan-Oxga. The punishment of seducing a princess promised to the goddess was death. They fled to the mountains, but were later found and killed by the high priests. Where their blood had touched the ground, a large shrub began to grow. This was later intertwined with a mysterious vine, which flowered into a beautiful orchid plant. The Totonac people came to believe the orchid and the shrub were the two lovers. The flowers dried up into pods and began releasing their aroma, which led to the production of vanilla. The orchid was later named a sacred plant. That is why it is said that vanilla was born of the blood of a princess.
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