Spice of Life
Use these key ingredients to prepare authentic Mexican food
Mexican food can be found in every corner of America, so it’s not surprising that different versions have developed, including the Southwestern Tex-Mex and the California-influenced Cal-Tex. Like most indigenous cuisines, ingredients and preparations vary greatly from region to region, but a few quintessential spices make Mexican food distinctly delicious.
The small, hard achiote seed is sold both whole and ground and imparts a slightly bitter, earthy flavor and russet color. It is used to make achiote paste (commonly used as a marinade for pork and poultry) in moles, tamales, stews, rice dishes and with meats and seafood.
ANCHO CHILE POWDER
Ancho powder is ground ancho (poblano) peppers. Ancho chile is a dark, smoky chili with a deep, rich flavor and mild to medium heat, with a slightly sweet flavor like that of dried fruits. The Ancho chile, together with the mulato and pasilla chiles, form the “holy trinity” of chiles used to prepare mole sauces. Ancho is used to add flavor, heat and color to sauces and moles.
Spanish for cinnamon, canela is the softer loose-bark variety of cinnamon grown in Ceylon rather than the more commonly found hard-stick version. It is used in coffee, Mexican chocolate and soups, stews and other savory dishes such as mole poblano.
Chile powder is a blend of dried, powdered chiles, cumin, garlic and Mexican oregano. Other spices are sometimes included in the mix, but those are the key ingredients. It is used primarily for seasoning chili, meats and vegetables, as well as stews.
CHIPOTLE CHILE POWDER
Chipotle is a jalapeño that has been dried and smoked. It has a distinctive smoky, hot flavor with subtle chocolate notes that go well in many sauces and salsas. It is also the primary flavor in adobo, a piquant sauce consisting of tomato, vinegar and various spices.
Cocoa is used in several dishes to add a rich, warm flavor. Spices combined with small amounts of cocoa and peanut butter are used to make mole poblano.
A pungent spice commonly used in Mexican dishes. Cumin is available in seed and ground form. It has a toasty, nutty yet somewhat bitter taste and gives Mexican dishes, such as chili and tamales, a distinct smoky flavor.
Epazote, which is called Mexican tea, is one of the lesser-known spices. It is essential in flavoring Mexican beans and is supposed to calm any intestinal discomfort beans may cause. This pungent spice, which may be an acquired taste, has a flavor best described as aromatic, somewhat citrusy and slightly bitter. Some have described the smell as similar to kerosene or gasoline!
Similar to oregano, Mexican oregano is slightly stronger with a slightly sweet flavor. Rich and earthy, it is used as a cooking spice in salsa and adobo and as a topping for soups.