Every country has different foods that they are known for, but Mexico seems to have so many that it is difficult to keep track. Sure everyone knows the taco and the quesadilla, but when you travel through Mexico you realize that there is so much more. The secret to making your own Mexican food at home is to know the spices and what they do to the food, so here are some of the more traditional ingredients used south of the border.
Cilantro or coriander is one of the most commonly used herbs in Mexican cuisine. It is also used to add flavor to street food like tacos and sopes. The green herbs that you see on the table or on counters at stands are more than likely cilantro. The flavor is pungent so you need to use it in moderation; too much of the herb can overpower the taste of the food.
Clove is very unique as a spice. It is a black or dark brown spice that looks almost like a small wooden nail. Its uses are as a food ingredient and as a home remedy for toothaches. Clove has a strong but pleasant aroma and it almost feels like a burning flavor. One clove is enough to flavor a single serving of food and you need to be careful when preparing more so follow the recipe unless you want to only taste the cloves in your food.
Because beans are very popular in Mexican cuisine so is cumin. Cumin is a spice used by most people when preparing beans at home. It is a very aromatic spice and you can smell it in the kitchen for hours after you use it, but it smells so good people do not really mind. Cumin is also used in chicken, grains and other meats like beef and lamb. Stews would not be the same without this spice.
Achiote is as Latin as it gets and it is a spice used in a lot in Mexican dishes. It is a seed which comes from the annatto tree; it is homemade into a paste by adding vinegar or lime juice. Its main use in small quantities is as a food coloring spice and rice is one of the main dishes it is perfect for. Achiote is also used in meats and fish and it gives a smoky flavor to them. In larger quantities it can add bitterness to a dish. If you see Sazón at your local supermarket and you have used it on your food then you already used achiote.
Adobo is very similar to achiote and it is a paste which has garlic, chilies, vinegar and other spices. Adobo gives a garlic flavor to food and it is commonly used to marinade meat, fish and chicken. In the Yucatán region of Mexico it is one of the most common ingredients when cooking meats so if you have had a meat or pork dish there, then you probably had adobo already. The sauce is spicy and thick though you can use a little water to dilute it.
If you have heard that spinach is rich in iron then you should compare it to chaya. The plant looks a lot like spinach and its nutritional iron content is even higher. This is a plant that has been part of Mexican cuisine for hundreds of years, but you need to exercise care when using chaya because you have to cook it; in its raw form chaya is toxic. By boiling it for a couple of minutes you remove any toxic substances from it.
Epazote is a herb in many dishes from chilaquiles to beans and soups. You will notice a pungent flavor and its taste is like that of fennel, tarragon and anise but stronger so one leaf is more than enough for a pot. Its properties are important because they help people avoid flatulence from dishes like beans.
Chepil or Chipilin
Though until recently it was hard to get this plant outside of Mexico and Central America recently they have made their way into specialty Mexican grocery stores. It is a plant that is native to the south of the country and most of the time it goes into tamales and soups. This herb is nothing special if you have it raw, but when cooked it releases its flavor. The flavor is pungent but not overwhelming and it is mostly an ingredient in recipes from Chiapas, Tabasco, Oaxaca and Campeche.
Tamarind is a fruit but it can also be made into a paste for cooking. One of the main uses in Mexico is for the popular “tamarindo” drink, but other uses are also great. The flavor of the paste depends on when the tamarind preparation takes place. When un-ripened the flavor is very sour and acidic, but once the fruit has reached its ripened state then it is sweet/sour and musky. The fruit is in traditional marinades, soups and homemade candy. Tamarind is not native to the country, but it grows well in the southern region and it is now a very important ingredient in the country’s cuisine.
If you like baked Mexican goods then chances are that you already had piloncillo. Piloncillo is better described as unrefined Mexican sugar and it is an ingredient in bakery sweets, holiday dishes, candies and beverages. This sugar gives you a sweet, earthy and rich flavor and it is pressed into cones which are then called “panela”. The sugar is most popular in the northern regions of the country especially in the Pacific coast line from Tijuana to Los Cabos. Piloncillo is also used in the atole drink and candied fruit.
Habanero Chile Flakes
If you want your food mildly spicy or you are not a fan of hot food then you should stay away from habanero chili flakes. They are some of the most spicy flakes that you can use. The good news about habanero is that though it is very spicy, it still has a very noticeable flavor. The Yucatán peninsula produces the largest amount of the spice and it is sprinkled as flakes on food to kick it up a notch. Not for the faint of heart, but spicy food lovers will want to always keep it in their kitchen.