It’s a big job to sum up spices used in traditional Mexican cooking, but let’s begin with cilantro, mentioned in Sanskrit texts dating back to 1500 BC. The Romans carried it throughout Europe, and of course the Spanish brought it along to Mexico where it was eagerly adopted and has become an integral part of the Mexican diet. Note that unless you reserve cilantro and add it only at the time you serve your dish, its flavor goes off very very quickly, leading many people to conclude that it’s icky. Serve is super fresh to truly appreciate the beauty of cilantro!
Comino (cumin) is native to the Mediterranean, another Spanish addition the use of which has become almost overwhelming in Tex Mex and some other northern styles of Mexican cooking. Fine Mexican dishes reserve cumin’s pungent, slightly smoky, bitter taste as a grace note.
Canela (cinnamon bark), a native of Ceylon, is used extensively in many sauces, stews, meat dishes, desserts, fruit dishes and certainly in a good Mexican cafe de olla. It combines well and frequently with other sweet herbs and spices like cloves, allspice, nutmeg, star anise and fresh mint.
There are a wide variety of beautiful traditional herbs used mostly in the south of Mexico such as Epazote with its bright green serrated leaves and incomparable fresh scent, essential for good black beans in the south; Hoja Santa with its lovely heart shape and fresh, light anise flavor used to flavor dishes or as a wrap for steaming fish; and Avocado Leaves, used both fresh and dried, with their addictively resinous, licorice-bay aroma and flavor used to season mixiotes, soups, chicken and fish, barbacoa, beans etc.
Fresh banana leaves add so much flavor to tamales or dishes wrapped in them for steaming or baking that they deserve to join the list. And here I’ll mention achiote paste, made from crushed deep red annato seeds and other spices, the indispensable flavor in the marinade for pollo or cochinita pibil, the famous pit barbecue of Yucatan baked in fresh banana leaves, of course!
Another widely used leaf fiber is mixiote from the maguey leaf, used like parchment paper to wrap and cook meats, fish and poultry. It turns crisp and adds its special flavor to dishes like the pre-Hispanic tamales sold in the Tlaxcala market, made from large fresh water fish stuffed with tiny fresh water fish, wrapped in mixiote and baked in coals… I would bet the women who sell them are descendants of other women who sold the same tamales in the same market as long as a thousand years ago! I have included a picture, below.
I must mention the famous Hierbas de Olor, a special herbal bouquet of bay, thyme and Mexican oregano used to scent and flavor many dishes, as well as plain old black pepper, salt and sugar, all of which play an essential role in traditional Mexican cooking, and cooking all over the world.
Mexico still produces all of its own sugar, and piloncillo is an excellent nutritional choice for sweetening dishes and drinks alike. It is made from the juice of the sugar cane which is cooked and poured into molds weighing from 100 grams to 1 kilo. In Oaxaca you will find excellent sugar called panela because it is made in round molds like panela cheese.
Without getting into the chiles, which really require an article unto themselves, this is a quick overview of the flavors used in traditional Mexican cooking. I have failed to mention many beautiful herbs and spices such as grassy green flat leaf parsley, chamomile and lemon grass… A complex cuisine like Mexico’s depends on a long list of items to create its signature moles, asados and guisados. It is well worth a cook’s while to create authentic Mexican flavors at home, which can help us to develop our own personal cuisine to its highest level!