Packed with hard-hitting flavors, this cooking herb is not usually eaten raw. The name comes from the Nahuatl words “epatzotl” (skunk) and “tzotl” (dirty). The resinous, fragrant herb has serrated, tapering leaves and grows wild in many parts of Mexico and the United States, particularly California. Considered indispensable in cooking black beans, epazote is also unsurpassed in quesadillas and many mushroom dishes. Epazote is better fresh; the essential oils that make it so pungent are lost when the herb is dried. Cooking with the dry herb is only considered acceptable during winters in cold climates.
HOJA DE AGUACATE (avocado leaf)
Both fresh and dried avocado leaves, with their licorice-like aroma, season mixiote, soups, beans, chicken and fish dishes. They serve as an acceptable substitute for hoja santa in green moles.
HIERBA SANTA or hoja santa (holy leaf)
Abundant in the south-central region of Mexico, the palm-sized, velvety leaves of this anise-scented, bushy perennial make fragrant wrappers for grilled or steamed fish dishes. It is featured in the pescado en hoja santa from Veracruz, where it is known as acuyo. It also flavors green moles, chicken and shrimp dishes, and is a tamale wrapping.
Cilantro is an important aromatic herb in Mexican cuisine. Spaniards introduced cilantro, a native of the old world, in the colonial period. The fresh herb flavors salsas, green moles and salads, and is also sprinkled on top of many dishes.
HIERBA BUENA (spearmint)
This aromatic herb seasons meat stews, cooked sauces and soups, most notably caldo de pollo, to which it adds a truly exquisite touch. The leaves garnish and lightly flavor cold drinks and make a tea that is considered a digestive and a home remedy for gastritis.
Although it is a different variety of mint, peppermint is interchangeable with spearmint in Mexico. See hierba buena above.LAUREL (bay leaf, bay laurel)Mexican bay laurel, grown in Veracruz, Oaxaca and Michoacan, has thinner leaves and a milder flavor than its European counterpart. The difference is slight enough that the two are interchangeable. Laurel accents Mexican soups, stews and marinades.
AZAFRÁN (Mexican safflower)
Mexican saffron is much milder than the Spanish variety, and added for its color rather than a strong flavor. It primarily tints chicken and seafood dishes, especially in combination with rice.
Native to the Mediterranean, oregano is always a dry herb. This aromatic leaf seasons caldos, rice, escabeche, meats and stews.
Used as a seasoning, but most often as a tea, rosemary is a home remedy for stomach ulcers and inflammations of the appendix and gall bladder.
This aromatic herb, a warm-weather perennial, is one of the classic hierbas de olor - fragrant seasoning herbs – that accents traditional Mexican cooking. It lends flavor to a wide variety of dishes, from sauces to marinades.
A self-seeding biennial, Mexican flat-leaved parsley is typically a final touch when cooking stews, soups and green moles.
CORTEZA de maguey or mixiote
This outermost layer of the maguey leaf, called a penca, is similar to parchment paper in thickness and consistency. It serves as a cooking bag for meat and poultry; these bundles are also called mixiotes.
HOJA DE MAÍZ (corn husk)
Used both fresh and dried, corn husks most frequently serve as tamale wrappings. They are also perfect wraps for foods to be cooked on a grill.
HOJA DE PLÁTANO (banana leaf)
In the warmer states in Mexico, such as Veracruz and Campeche, banana leaves are tamale wrappers. Many meat and poultry dishes, including the Yucatan's cochinita pibil, are enclosed in banana leaves before cooking. The leaves are sold in Latin markets north of the border and are becoming more widely available in supermarkets in large cities.