Mexican spices

mexican
I’d love to be able to say that I know all there is to know about food and cooking, but that statement just wouldn’t be true. And, truthfully, if I did know everything there was to know about food, I wouldn’t like my job anymore. Learning about new foods, flavours and ingredients is what makes being a food writer interesting.

Even before I really knew that the food I called Mexican was really an American derivation, I was on my way to loving the flavours of Mexican food. Later, after visiting Mexico, my appreciation of that country’s cuisine only deepened.

Regrettably, until recently, authentic Mexican ingredients weren’t readily available in Canada. Fortunately that problem is starting to abate as more Canadians learn about authentic Mexican flavours. Recently I purchased three new ingredients that I’m looking forward to experimenting with in my own kitchen.

1. Avocado Leaves: Similar in texture to a dry bay leaf, dried avocado leaves are quite different from the succulent, rich fruit Canadians are used to eating as guacamole and as a filling for maki style sushi. These leaves are best toasted to release their subtle hazelnut and anise flavours. Books I’ve consulted say they should be ground with a mortar and pestle and then added to moles, fish and chicken dishes.

2. Achiote: Also called annoto seed, this red, musky scented seed is the colour of the Middle Eastern spice zaatar. These hard seeds are used as a base seasoning for pastes used for grilled meats and fish.

3. Epazote: Apparently this herb is considered essential in Mexican bean dishes by some people since it helps to relieve gassiness. Epazote has a bit of a bitter flavour that is vaguely citrusy. It makes me a bit nervous, though since it carries a warning not to be eaten or handled by pregnant women and is also called wormseed (yuck!).

If any of you have experience using these ingredients, please share your tips and insights. I’m sure you can teach me and other readers a lot!

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18 Responses to Mexican spices

  1. beth says:

    OMG _ I’ve never even heard of any of these ingredients!

    Looking forward to Topline Trends Tuesdays!

  2. Rosa says:

    Great spices! These avocado leaves are interesting…

    Isn’t sumac used in za’atar? Achiote is used in the confection of cheese and certain other produces (coloring). With achiote, you can make a paste (http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Achiote-Paste/Detail.aspx), rice dishes (http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/achiote-rice) and many more dishes…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  3. cherie says:

    I never heard about the avocado leaves, but I looked everywhere for epazote and achiote paste for a “grilled fish in banana leaves” number this past summer. Where can I buy them? I live in Toronto.
    Thanks

  4. Natashya says:

    I have not seen the avocado leaves before, put recently picked up the other two. I am like you though, I pick up spices that are new to me, before knowing exactly what to do with them. I would ask Ben of What’s Cooking? He is a great resource for Mexican cooking and flavourings. http://whatscooking.us/

  5. Pre-soaking beans also relieves some of the gassiness but doesn’t require warning labels :-)

    I’ve no experience with these ingredients and know I couldn’t find them easily. I was thrilled when I came across chipotle chili powder.

    Looking forward to the Trendy Tuesdays. I always learn something.

    This is off topic, but I just noticed I can be notified of follow-up comments via email. Is this a new feature or have I been oblivious? If it’s new, thanks for adding it!

  6. danamccauley says:

    Hi Cherie, I bought these spices as part of a kit at Pusateris on Avenue Road. I bet you could get them (cheaper!) in Kensington Market, too.

    Thanks for the link Natashya. I’m going to check it out over the weekend.

    Char, I think that feature has been around my blog for a while. To be honest, the wordpress people add new stuff all the time and it just sort of turns up.

  7. Margaret says:

    Have you ever tried Mexican vanilla? I love the flavour. You?

  8. cheryl says:

    I’ve never tried this stuff either, but I discovered poblano chiles a few years ago and they really influenced my Mexican-style dishes. Now I’m going to look for the herbs/seeds you highlighted, too.

  9. Ruth Alegria says:

    My two cents:
    Avocado leaves should be fresh, we may be seeing California avocado growers doing some packaging soon. The fresh leaves are used as food wrappers, tamales of course but also for covering and adding flavor to barbacoa meats in Oaxaca. Can be used as a substitute for hoja santa in an emergency.

    Achiote and sour orange juice are a must combo in Yucatecan dishes. The seeds can also be soaked in hot water or vinegar to get a liquid marinade base.

    Epazote, oh the poor misunderstood WEED! When my parents first lived in New York, 1950’s, it was still safe to pick this weed in Central Park.It is used in cooking, but never eaten RAW. Diana Kennedy does not recommend it dried, since it loses essential oils that make up its distinctive aromas.

    I have to say it would take at least a half page each to describe each ingredient and its particular uses. But I don’t have to because Diana kennedy did it for all of us when she wrote “From My Mexican Kitchen – Techniques and Ingredients”. Pages overflowing with beautiful color pictures, detailed explanations, from scientific names to regional uses of ingredients.
    Order it at

    And it seems to be half priced.

  10. danamccauley says:

    Ruth you are amazing! Thanks for adding your expert insights and reccommenedations.

  11. Cheryl A says:

    I was just in Mexico and did most of our grocery shopping – I saw none of these at the store. Sadly, there was a lot of pre-made moles and such. But I did load up on dried chili and vanilla before I came home.

  12. Ruth Alegria says:

    For fresh ingredients, hoja santa, hoja de aguacate, epazote, quelites, vergolagas and the rest of the pantheon you have to go the “mercados” and “tianguises. Mercados are government built market centers where the best and traditional of all foods are sold. Tianguises, also known as “mercado sobre rudeas” or market on wheels are held at least onve, if not twice, a week in almost every neighborhood of Mexico City.
    That’s where everyone goes for everything you can’t get at the “super”.

  13. Hélène says:

    I made your Make-Ahead Rich and Meaty Bolognese Sauce last night and it was really good. Thanks for the recipe.

  14. danamccauley says:

    Thanks Helene! I’m so pleased you enjoyed my recipe. : )

  15. Jude says:

    Filipinos use achiote as a coloring agent. I can’t really say that it adds much flavor — it’s very subtle and easily gets lost when other spices get in the mix.

  16. danamccauley says:

    Very interesting – thanks Jude!

  17. brilynn says:

    It’s funny how something you’ve never heard of can all of a sudden pop up everywhere. That seems to be the case with me and epazote lately, I think I’ve read about it in three different places in the past week but the only bit of information I retained from it was that it supposedly relieves gasiness…

  18. danamccauley says:

    Yeah, now that I’ve learned more about epazote I’m kind of feeling ‘whatever’ about it.

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