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Herbs and Spices
– in the Mexican Cuisine –
There are approximately 26,000 edible species of plants, which are used for different purposes like: wrap, aromatize, season, infuse, cook or use them fresh. Here you will only get to know some of those plants – the most important ones.
If you are going to use fresh leaves we recommend selecting leaves that are totally green. If you have the complete plant with roots put them in water or if you only have the leaves cover them with wet cloths to keep them fresh for longer time.
If you are going to use dry leaves we recommend choosing whole leaves not the ones that are broken because they tend to be older. Store them in a glass container in a dry and dark area.
– If you want to dry fresh leaves place them in a warm place and away from humid environments.
Now, let’s explore the herbs and spices that have been adopted by the Mexican cuisine, throughout its history since the arrival of the Spaniards till nowadays.
Basil | Bay Leaf | Cardamom | Cauliflower Leaf | Chard | Cinnamon | Clove | Coriander | Cumin | Fennel | Fig Leaf | Grape Leaf | Marjoram | Medlar Leaf | Mint | Orange Leaf | Oregano | Parsley | Pepper | Purslane | Rosemary | Salvia | Spearmint | Spinach | Tarragon | Thyme | Watercress
ArugulaThis herb of fresh and intense aroma is native of Portugal and Morocco. Since ancient times it has been known as an aphrodisiac herb.
Arugula’s flavor is bitter and similar to pepper’s. Therefore only use a little in your salads and to compensate the bitter taste we recommend adding a sweet dressing, that will create a perfect combination.
– This herb also mixes very well with cheeses and it is high in vitamin A and C.
BasilThis native herb from India, can be eaten fresh in salads or dried which serves to season and aromatize soups, pastas and meats.
...it gives such a good flavor and smell to pastas that the Italian cuisine has adopted bail as one of their main spices.
Basil’s aroma is quite similar to mint’s and its taste fluctuates in three categories:
1) It has a sweet taste as jasmine.
2) An acid taste like lime.
3) A spicy flavor like clove.
This spice also offers health benefits because it is digestive, it combats headaches and reduces fatigue.
Bay LeafThe laurel is a tree from the Mediterranean and its leaves have been used for various purposes. In the ancient Greece and Rome people were crowned with bay leaves as a Symbol of Victory.
In gastronomy bay leaves are used whole to season soups, stocks and the delicious pozole. These leaves are perfect for stews that are cooked over low heat. The leaf flavor is balsamic and a little bitter. For this reason use few leaves while cooking and discard them before serving.
Therefore use bay leaves to give a stronger flavor to the food, moreover they can also be used to mix with vinegars and oils... it is said that these leaves help to whet your appetite.
CardamomCardamom, in its natural form, consists of a set of seeds which come wrapped in a pod... and at the moment of opening the pod... a delight of aromas and flavors is ignited.
This plant is native to India and it is considered a luxury spice because it is very expensive. Both its aroma and flavor are strong and penetrating, therefore use it with moderation.
Its smell is strong, citric and a little spicy, while its flavor is also slightly spicy carrying a combination of lemon and orange. This combination of both aromas and flavors goes very good with thecinnamon – an exquisite combination is created.
In the kitchen it is used to aromatize and season food and drinks; it’s also used in desserts. In India it is used to season rice, curries, sauces and other foods.
– Medically aids with indigestion, relieves pain caused by hemorrhoids, accelerates the metabolism and improves body odor.
Cauliflower LeafIt’s believed that cauliflower comes from Asia. Its leaves have an intense flavor, for this reason when they are used in the kitchen only few are added. Within its culinary purposes they are used in salads, salsas and soups like in the popular vegetable soup.
– Cauliflower leaves’ are high in fiber and vitamin B.
ChardChard is a plant native to the Mediterranean area and Africa. Its flavor is similar to spinach however it differs because it has a soft vanilla taste and slightly bitter touch. Chard is excellent for preparing soups, tortas, salads, empanadas, etc.
Besides being a good kitchen ingredient it also has healing properties it is a good diuretic, it helps the immune system, it has anticancer properties, its high fiber makes it good to treat constipation, good against stress and its high water helps to lose weight... and it has few calories.
CinnamonThere’s no better way to describe cinnamon than from its Greek etymology “kinamon" sweet wood, that is cinnamon’s best description of its aroma and taste.
Cinnamon is a spice native of Sri Lanka; it is extracted from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree. Its bark is short and while it dries it is rolled forming the cinnamon branches.
Historically the cinnamon has been used since the time of the Egyptians.
Medically it is believed that cinnamon helps with diabetes, weight loss, colds, heart and kidney problems.
The cinnamon comes in various presentations, as a branch, stick and ground.
With these examples it can be seen that it’s a spice specialized in desserts... although other recipes are also prepared with cinnamon like the mole.
CloveBelieve it or not the clove come from the Spice Islands, it’s true that’s the way Maluku Islands are called in Indonesia.
Cloves come from the clove tree and are the flower buds that have not blossomed yet. Clove’s aroma is strong, spiced and slightly sweet, while the taste is spicy, refreshing, strong and similar to cinnamon. Use clove sparingly in your dishes, if not its flavor may harass the palate.
The clove goes very well with the cinnamon and the cumin. It is used in beverages such as spiced coffee and main course dishes, it is also used in desserts.
Medically is used as a toothache painkiller due to its anesthetic properties.
CorianderThe coriander, also known as Chinese parsley, can be used as a herb for its leaves or as a spice for its seeds. This herb is native of North Africa and Southern Europe and it has been used since time immemorial.
Cilantro’s flavor can be described as a combination between parsley, mint and lime. This type of combination does create a strong flavor, therefore don’t add a lot of cilantro in your dishes... you can see it as an excellent seasoning that goes with any type of food and adds an extra touch of flavor, freshness and aroma.
The coriander is used in a wide variety of dishes in the Mexican cuisine. It is used to prepare salsas (like the famous guacamole), soups, appetizers and even desserts... along with parsley and epazote is the most used herb in the Mexican cuisine.
– It is also used to garnish dishes like: Puebla style rice, ceviche, chilaquiles, etc.
As a tip... while chopping the cilantro try to use only the leaves, as it is sold in bunches with stems and roots. Also remember that it has to be refrigerated after useing.
Medically it serves as an antioxidant, it helps preventing digestive problems and bad breath.
CuminThe cumin plant has fruits that contain seeds, being these the ones that are used as a spice when they dry. Native of the Mediterranean area cumin is used raw, roasted, ground or whole.
In the kitchen is used either to whet appetite as well as to season and aromatize drinks, breads, soups, cheeses, etc. Its aroma is strong and a bit sweet; while its flavor is intense, peppery, bitter and nutty.
Thanks to cumin’s digestive properties, you can add it to dishes that are considered difficult to digest; cumin will make this task easier. Cumin is also used against stress, to relieve diarrhea and to alleviate gastritis.
FennelThis herb is almost used entirely in gastronomy. Native of Italy fennel is a very aromatic herb, the smell is similar to mint. Its seeds are used as a spice to season breads, cakes and fishes.
Its stem and leaves can be used either raw or cooked which serve to give an aniseed flavor to soups, vegetables, rices, pastas, etc.
If the fennel bulb is available it can be used in salads to give a feeling of freshness and it also gives an aniseed touch. In medicine fennel is used as a diuretic and it helps to relieve of conjunctivitis.
Fig LeafThe common fig tree is native to the Middle East. The leaves of this tree are very famous because they were worn by Adam and Eve to cover themselves, when they were expelled from paradise.
In gastronomy fig leaves are used whole and mainly in desserts to give a sweet and fruity touch. These leaves can be used in candies, jams, tamales, rice pudding, teas, etc.
Medically they serve against warts and skin problems.
Grape LeafIt is also known as “vine leaf". The grape leaves are native to Turkey and they have a taste similar to spices with a slightly bitter touch.
Since these leaves are too large (measuring approximately 10 inches) therefore they are used to wrap food like rice, bell peppers and different types of meats.
The grape leaves have anti-inflammatory properties and they also contain high levels of vitamins and minerals.
MarjoramThis is the herb that you have to have handy to aromatize your food with a sweet fragrance similar to pine and lime. We believe that due to this fantastic aroma it is an herb that has been associated with joy.
The marjoram plant is native to the Mediterranean region and its leaves are the ones that act as condiment. Normally the leaves are used dry because the aroma becomes more intense.
With the marjoram can be aromatize soups, pastas, meat, fish, vinegars, oils, butter, cheese, etc. It also adds an interesting flavor similar to oregano although it is milder.
– The marjoram is also used to relieve headaches, respiratory diseases and it has digestive properties.
Medlar LeafThe medlar tree is native to Europe and Asia. Its leaves have a sweet aroma and its taste is similar to medlar’s skin. This is an elaborated flavor because it’s strong, sweet, slightly bitter and with a light citric touch.
The leaves are high in calcium and they are used in the kitchen to prepare jellies, jams, liqueurs, teas and the famous punch.
MintWhen mint’s fresh, strong, sweet and spicy aroma is perceived it automatically stimulates and whets the appetite; preparing the palate to enter into a world of flavors...
On the other hand when mint is eaten it gives a cool aftertaste sensation which opens the airways making more perceptible the food’s aroma that are about to be eaten.
Mint is native to the area of Asia and the Mediterranean. It is widely used in aromatherapy and in the dental industry as it gives a sense of freshness and it fights bad breath. Medically is used as a digestive treatment, it also helps with nauseas and respiratory problems.
The mint leaf is normally used fresh although it can also be used dry. In the culinary arts it has infinite applications as it can be found in salads, cakes, mousses, ice-creams, candies, gum, chocolates, drinks, teas, liquors, etc.
Orange LeafThe orange tree, native of Asia, not only its fruits are used in the kitchen also its leaves. The leaves are mainly used to aromatize desserts like cakes, cookies, pancakes, etc.
Orange leaves are high in vitamin C and provide a beautiful orange scent and citric flavor.
OreganoThe oregano plant is a small shrub from which its leaves are used as a spice. The leaves can be used either dry or fresh, although when they are dry they have more aroma and flavor.
This plant is native to the Mediterranean. The word oregano comes from the Greek meaning “joy of the mountains" because it grows everywhere. Mythologically it was Aphrodite who gave oregano its aroma.
Oregano has a smell that is strong, fresh, penetrating and slightly spicy. Its flavor is strong, bitter, spicy and with a slightly mint touch. This flavor is normally confused with the marjoram, but this is lighter.
The oregano is widely used in pastas, pizzas, fish, sauces and in pozole is a must. It also has healing properties because it is a very good antioxidant.
ParsleyIts intense green color, its sense of freshness and its lovely aroma makes it part of many dishes around the world, to the extent that it is considered the most used herb in world’s gastronomy.
Parsley is native to the Mediterranean area and it comes in 2 versions:
Parsley is sold in bunches; whenever you buy a bunch discard the yellow stems and leaves because their taste is not good... and speaking about taste, parsley’s tasty flavor can be described as fresh, slightly spicy and with a tiny touch of pepper. The taste is usually confused with cilantro’s but they are really two different things.
– Among its benefits, parsley contains high amounts of vitamin C, it serves as a diuretic, for hypertension and it has a potent anti cancer activity.
PepperPepper is native to India and it has been very important throughout history because it was used to improve the taste decomposing food (imagine those days without fridges, most of the food was rotten). Such was its value and importance that it was even used as an exchange currency (a type of barter).
This spice is sold whole and ground. Due to the fact that pepper plant’s fruit (piper nigrum) is processed at different ripe stages, there are 3 types of pepper:
The pepper is free and it is on all the tables due to the benefits that provides. It helps to burn fat, improves the digestion, blood circulation, fights hemorrhoids and it is a potent antioxidant.
– We recommend buying whole peppercorns and store them in a pepper grinder to preserve pepper’s aroma and taste for a longer time.
PurslaneIn many parts of the world it is believed that this herb, native to the Middle East, is just part of the undergrowth and it is not edible. Therefore all the benefits that purslane has to offer are lost.
Its leaves are fleshy and juicy; the taste is sour, nutty and salty. They are primarily used in salads, sauces, soups and accompanying pork meat (can also be used as if they were spinach). Nutritionally it contains a large amount of Omega-3 fatty acid, more than fish and it is cheaper than fish.
In the alternative medicine it is good for the digestive system, the urinary system, it relieves constipation and it is also a good treatment for insect bites.
RosemaryRosemary is a shrub native of the Mediterranean and North Africa. Its taste and aroma is intense, they can be described as a combination of pine, walnut and lavender.
Its aspect is lovely because it has blue and purple flowers which sometimes are used in salads.
In the kitchen is used to give a stronger flavor to the food such as meats and vegetables, therefore use it sparingly. The rosemary is also used in the perfume and cosmetics industry. In the medicine is a good pain killer and improves memory.
Don’t confuse rosemary (in Spanish romero) with romertios, these are 2 totally different things. The romeritos is a dish made with the romerito plant which is combined with mole.
SalviaThis plant native to the Mediterranean etymologically means “to cure", because in ancient times it was used to cure many diseases.
It is a very aromatic herb, its taste is a bit bitter and spicy. It is used to season meats and fatty foods.
SpearmintThe spearmint aroma and flavor is quite similar to that of mint; it only is a bit softer. Native to Europe this herb is digestive, it aids with liver problems, burns and bad breathe – it is also used in the perfume industry.
In the kitchen it is primarily used for desserts like candies, gum, ice-creams, cakes, etc. It is also used to season soups, salads, vegetables, salsas, liqueurs, cocktails and to prepare Cuban mojitos.
SpinachIt is believed that spinach originated in ancient Persia, as they were the first to commercialize it.
This leaf is high in water and low in calories making it a very good food for diets. It’s also very nutritious, as it is high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants...
...although it is not as nutritious as to make you as strong as Popeye :( unfortunately that’s a myth because it doesn’t contain as much iron as it was believed.
The spinaches are used in the kitchen to cook empanadas, omelets, salads, side dishes and many more plates. They are widely used in vegetarian cuisine.
In the traditional medicine they are considered to have anti-cancer agents, they also help to maintain bones, eyes, skin and to combat anemia.
TarragonThis herb native to Russia and Western Asia draws attention for its spicy and aniseed aroma. Its taste is similar to a combination between pepper and anise.
The tarragon in its fresh version is used to aromatize salads. In its dry version is used to season meats, creams, butter, etc. It is also used to mix with oils and to boost vinegar. It is recommended to use it in small portions.
– It is a good diuretic, facilitates menstruation and prevents gastritis.
ThymeThe thyme, the herb of the warriors, of courage and of bravery was used in ancient times as a symbol of strength.
This herb native to North Africa and Asia is very aromatic, the smell is similar to lime. Although there are hundreds of species of this plant, the most used and the most common is the "thymus vulgaris".
Not only use this herb in the kitchen when you want to aromatize your food but when you want to intensify the flavor of your food adding a slightly spicy taste similar to clove and to the mint.
This spice can go through long cooking periods, therefore it is ideal to prepare soups; it also serves to season the chicken and different meat types. Medically is an excellent bacteria killer and it helps with respiratory problems.
WatercressWhenever you want to add a sophisticated flavor to your salads, watercress is the alternative.
This herb native to the Middle East and Europe it has an intense aroma and a strong flavor sort like a spicy mustard. Therefore don’t add too many watercresses on your plates because all the other flavors will be lost.
Watercresses are also used as a side dish mainly in dishes that have meat. Preferably, serve the watercress fast because their leaves and stems while being exposed to the air for a long time tend to change color to a dark purple.
– Watercresses are high in iron and are recommended for treating kidney problems and anemia.
*Consult with your doctor about the medical benefits previously mentioned.
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Mexican Recipes with Many Spices
◈ Chicken in Red Pipian
◈ Pork in Green Pipian
◈ Red Pozole