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A culinary guide to Mexican herbs: Las hierbas de cocina

Karen Hursh Graber

Spring is the season of renewal, evident in the green buds poking up through the warming earth and, here in Mexico, symbolized by the wheat sprouts that adorn altars during Easter week. For many people, this time of year brings with it the urge to plant a garden. As the nitrogen-rich April showers begin preparing the soil, flower lovers peruse seed catalogues and those who keep kitchen gardens start planning the placement of summer vegetables and herbs.

With the current international interest in Mexican cuisine, several mail-order companies have begun to specialize in plants and seeds for Mexican culinary herbs. Even if your space is confined to windowsill pots in a city apartment, you can easily experience the joy of cutting your own fresh herbs as you get creative in the kitchen. Those with no inclination toward tending even the hardiest herbs can now find several of the more common herbs used in Mexican cooking being sold in the produce department of the local supermarket.

The following guide lists only culinary herbs; there are hundreds more used in Mexico for medicinal, aromatic and cosmetic purposes. Although herbs are technically only the aromatic leaves of plants, the list also contains those plants whose seeds are found frequently in Mexican recipes. It includes both idigenous plants used since pre-Hispanic times and herbs that arrived after the conquest. Several of the herbs, in addition to being used in food and beverages, are also employed in home remedies, and these are noted below.

Next month's column will feature some favorite recipes using these wonderfully fragrant and tasty plants, as well as a source list for ordering Mexican culinary herbs through mail order and Internet sites.

The English name, when there is one, appears in parentheses, followed by the botanical name.

Achiote (annatto) bixa orellana:
The dark red seed of the annatto plant, which can grow anywhere from bush to tree size, is a basic necessity in traditional Yucatecan cooking. Combined with bitter orange juice, oregano and other spices, it makes a paste that is added to meat, poultry and fish. It is used to color several rice dishes, and is an excellent marinade for grilled pork or chicken.
Acuyo or tlanepa:
Names used in Veracruz for hierba santa (see below)

Albahaca (sweet basil) oncimum basilicum:
This sunny annual can be found in many varieties, including those with lemon and cinnamon aromas, and its most frequent culinary uses in Mexico are in vinaigrettes and sauces. Mexican herbalists often recommend basil leaf tea as a home remedy for infant colic and indigestion.

Amaranto (amaranth) amaranthus hypochondriachus:
The seeds of the amaranth plant are used to make the popular candy called alegría, as well as in blended juice drinks and other health-food menu items. In the state of Tlaxcala, where it grows in abundance, it is found in the delicious mole de amaranto.

Ajonjolí (sesame) sesamum indicum:
An indispensible ingredient in many moles, as well as being the traditional mole Poblano garnish, sesame seeds are used to top the sandwich rolls called cemitas and a variety of other baked goods. The leaves are a flavoring ingredient in some blended teas.

Anís (anise) pimpinella anisum:
The sweet, aromatic seed of the plant is widely used in Mexico in candies, cakes, some stews, and the after-dinner liqueur of the same name.

Azafrán (Mexican safflower) cartamus tinctorius:
Mexican saffron is much milder than the Spanish variety, and is noted for its color rather than a strong flavor. It is found primarily in chicken and seafood dishes, especially in combination with rice.

Berros (watercress) nasturtium officinalis:
Popular in salads and soups, it is also taken in the form of a licuado in the northern and central regions of the country as a remedy for renal and pulmonary problems.

Chaya, also known as chayamansa, chayacol, and keki-chay, cnidoscolus chayamansa:
Found naturally only on the Yucatan peninsula, the leaves of this non-flowering herb have been used in Mayan cuisine since pre-Hispanic times. Fray Diego de Landa, one of the chroniclers of the conquest, describes dishes prepared with chaya in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan. Nowadays, in addition to its traditional Mayan place in tamales and pumpkin seed sauces, it is an ingredient in Yucatecan contributions to Nouvelle Mexican Cuisine, such as crepas de chaya. It makes a refreshing agua fresca, said to detoxify the blood. In recipes calling for chaya, finely chopped young spinach leaves may be substituted.

Chepil or chipil, crotalaria longirostrata:
An important ingredient in Oaxacan cooking, probably because of its drought resistance, the tiny leaves are tucked into the famous tamales de chepil and their green bean-like flavor adds a delicious touch to white rice.

A strong, clean fragrance characterizes this Oaxacan herb, used both traditionally and in Nouvelle Mexican cuisine. In the latter, it flavors a delicious mushroom and watercress salad.

Chía (chia) salvia columbariae:
Well known in the United States as the seeds that sprout on "chia pets", the seeds of this relative of the watercress are used in Mexico to make an agua fresca. They are soaked until somewhat spongy and viscuous, then combined with water, sugar and lemon juice.

Cilantro Cilantro (coriander, Chinese parsley) coriandum sativum:
A self-seeding annual, with a tangy, almost pungent flavor, cilantro is used in a great variety of Mexican dishes. Its leaves are required in fresh green salsas, as well as in several other cooked and fresh salsas, bean and rice dishes, soups, stews and moles. Less frequently, the seeds are ground and added to stews. Cilantro cannot be dried successfully, since it loses most of its flavor in the process, but is widely available fresh in produce departments and markets.

Cominos (cumin) cuminum cyminum:
The flavorful and highly aromatic seeds are used whole or ground in a wide variety of Mexican meat stews and soups. This annual, which grows to about 1 foot, needs warm, moist growing conditions.

Corteza de maguey or mixiote (century plant) agave americana:
The 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.

Epazote (wormseed) chenopodium ambrosioides:
This hardy perennial, with its resinous fragrance and serrated, tapering leaves, grows wild in many parts of Mexico and the United States, especially California. Considered indispensable in cooking black beans, epazote is also unsurpassed in quesadillas and in many mushroom dishes. Widely used as a remedy for intestinal disorders, including parasites, it is also mixed with tabacco leaves and employed as a poultice on poisonous insect bites. Epazote may be dried for culinary use during winter in cold climates.

Flor de cimal:
This small, red-leafed herb that grows at the base of the maguey - century plant - is incorporated into tamale dough in the traditional country cooking of the Sierra Oriental, whose indigenous population gathers and cooks with a wide variety of wild herbs.

Flor de frijol (bean flower) phaseolus vulgaris:
The flowers of green, white, red kidney, pinto, and snap beans are often sauteed with onion, garlic and tomato and added to bean soups and salsas.

Guajes (cuajes) hauxya:
These 10-20 centimeter-long purple pods, which come from the tree of the same name, contain seeds that resemble lentils and are used to flavor the delicious Mexican meat stew called guasmole, a specialty of the regions around Puebla and Oaxaca. Their distinctive taste, somewhat reminiscent of garlic, was much appreciated by the Spaniards, who wrote of finding them among the produce at the great Tlatelolco market.

A downy, wild herb, with triangular, sprear-shaped leaves, purple flowers and tiny round fruit, eaten by the indigenous people of eastern Mexico, in combination with onion, garlic, chile and squash.

Hierba buena (spearmint) mentha spicata:
This aromatic herb, a tough perrenial capable of taking over a garden, is used in meat stews, cooked sauces and soups, most notably caldo de pollo, to which it adds a truly exquisite touch. The leaves are added to cold drinks and also used to make tea, considered a digestive and a home remedy for gastritis.

Hierba de conejo (Indian paintbrush) castilleja lanata:
Growing wild in desert areas of the United States and Mexico, this bright red-flowered herb was traditionally used by the indigenous people of what is now the state of Nevada, and by the Zapotec people of Oaxaca, where it is still frequently added to a pot of beans or rice.

Hierba santa or hoja santa piper auritum, piper sanctum:
Abundant in the south-central region of Mexico, the palm-sized, velvety leaves of this anise-scented, bushy perrenial make fragrant wrappers for grilled or steamed fish dishes, such as the Pescado en Hoja Santa of Veracruz, where it is quite commonly known as acuyo. It is also used as a flavoring in green moles, a tamale wrapping, and with chicken and shrimp dishes. As a home remedy, it is considered anti-inflammatory and prepared as a tea for stomach cramps and as a poultice for skin irritations.

Hoja de aguacate (avocado leaf) persea americana:
Both fresh and dried avocado leaves, with thier licorace-like aroma, are used to season mixiotes, soups, chicken and fish dishes, and beans. It serves as an acceptable substitute for hoja santa in green moles. Taken three times a day on an empty stomach, avocado leaf tea is sometimes prescribed by Mexican herbalists to expel intestinal parasites. Eating the leaves is said to increase breast milk production.

Hoja de maíz (corn husk) zea maïs:
Used both fresh and dried, corn husks most frequently serve as tamale wrappings. They can also be used to wrap foods to be cooked on a grill.

Hoja de platano (banana leaf) musa paradisiaca:
Although a tropical plant (and not a tree) the banana can be grown in a cool climate if the bulbous root is dug and stored for the winter, before the first frost, like any other bulb. In the warmer states in Mexico, such as Veracruz and Campeche, banana leaves are used as tamale wrappers. Many meat and poultry dishes, including the Yucatan's cochinita pibil, are enclosed in banana leaves before cooking. Banana leaves are sold in Latin markets north of the border and are becoming more widely available in supermarkets in large cities.

Huazontle chenopodium berlandieri:
Looking like an elongated version of broccoli, and with a similar flavor, this pre-Hispanic plant was first prepared by the Aztecs and other indigenous people of Central Mexico. The rough outer leaves are always removed, and the tender tips are usually served stuffed with cheese, batter-dipped and fried. Alternatively, they can be sauteed with chopped onion and garlic.

Laurel (bay leaf, bay laurel) Mexican: litsea ssp, Mediterranean: lauris nobilis:
Mexican bay laurel has thinner leaves and a milder flavor than its European counterpart, but the difference is little enough that they may be used interchangeably. Many Mexican recipes call for bay laurel in soups, stews, and marinades.

Lenguitas, orejas de diablo:
These are only two of the various names given to the small, wild herbs that grow in the milpas - cornfields - most often prepared in Tlaxcala and Puebla in various meat and vegetable dishes, especially with longaniza or chorizo.

Lipia (lemon verbena) lippia citriodora:
The leaves of this plant, a perrenial growing to 5 feet tall, have a wonderful citrus aroma, and need only to be rubbed to release their delightful fragrance. They are used to make hot tea, agua fresca, and as a delicious addition to pay de queso - cheesecake. The tea is said to be effective in reducing stomach acid and gastritis.

Manzanilla (chamomille) matricaria recutita, matricaria chamomilla:
As tea-drinkers who visit Mexico soon find out, this is one of the "basic three" teas usually available in Mexican restaurants, along with lemon grass and mint. It is frequently used as a digestive and, when made into an infusion and cooled, as an eye-wash and a cleanser for superficial wounds.

Mejorana (marjoram) origanum onites:
Along with thyme, marjoram is the ingredient in the traditional manojo de hirbas de olor - handful of fragrant herbs - mentioned in countless recipes for soups and stews. It is also a very common marinating ingredient, fundamental to cebollas, zanahorias y chiles encurtidos - the delicious marinated vegetables that grace the tables at many Mexican restaurants.

Menta (peppermint) menta piperita:
Although it is a different veriety of mint, peppermint is used in Mexico like spearmint. See hierba buena above.

Orégano (oregano) origanum vulgare:
This variety of oregano is the most commonly found in Mexico, and is most often used dry. It is essential to pozole, the country's famous hominy chowder, as well to many tomato-based dishes, most notably huachinango a la veracruzana, Veracruz-style red snapper.

Pápalo or papaloquelite porophyllum ruderale:
This distinctively pungent herb is usually eaten raw on cemitas - central Mexico's version of the hero sandwich - and is sometimes found in guacamole and salads. It's name comes from papalotl, Nahuatl for "butterfly."

Pepicha or pipicha porophyllum tagetoides:
A warm-weather annual with a taste much like a very strong cliantro, pepicha is used in green salsas, and in cooking corn and squash.

Perejil (parsley) petroselinum crispum:
A self-seeding biennial, Mexican flat-leaved parsley is typically added at the end of cooking stews, soups and green moles. It is considered a digestive system cleanser, and often taken in a morning licuado, with lemon juice and garlic, by those on weight-loss diets.

Quelites (lamb's quarter) chenopodium berlandieri:
Eaten as a vegetable since pre-Hispanic times, this herb tastes similiar to young spinach, and is prepared in much the same way. It is delicious sauteed with a bit of chopped onion, and its delicate flavor is hightly esteemed by the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada Oriental, who eat it with green salsa.

A wild herb with long, wrinkled oval leaves and green flowers, this plant is used to make a guisado - stew - with chipotle chiles and the small white fish called charales.

Romero (rosemary) rosamarinus officinales:
Sometimes used as a seasoning, but most often as a tea, rosemary is a common home remedy for stomach ulcers and inflamations of the appendix and gall bladder. Boiled until its strong-smelling oil is released, it is an effective soak for sprains, arthritis and rheumatism. Mexican folk medicine holds rosemary to be the cure for susto and espanto, conditions thought to be brought on by shock. A tonic made from rosemary is taken to sharpen the memory.

Romerito suaeda torreyana:
Long, thin leaves resembling rosemary leaves characterize this herb which is a traditional Lenten dish in Mexico. Along with dried chiles and other seasonings, it is used to make the broth in which tortas de camaron - dried shrimp and egg patties - are served.

Te limón (lemon grass) cymbopogon citratus:
Coming into use as a flavoring in Nouvelle Mexican Cuisine, the tall, ornamental lemon grass has heretofore been used primarily for making tea. One of the most popular breakfast teas, it is also considered a digestive.

Tila tilia mexicana:
Widely used in Michoacan, Puebla and the state of Mexico, a tea made from the dried flowers is considered to have a calming effect on the nerves and to lower blood pressure.

Tomillo (thyme) thymus vulgaris:
This aromatic herb, a warm-weather perrenial, is one of the classic hierbas de olor - fragrant seasoning herbs - used in traditional Mexican cooking. It lends flavor to a wide variety of dishes, from sauces to marinades and pickled chiles.

Toronjil (balm-gentle) agastache mexicana:
Another herb used for tea, primarily in Hidalgo, Michoacan, Morelia, Puebla and Mexico, toronjil is considered a digestive. The tall, lemon-scented annual is popular for weight control and nervous system disorders.

Verbena verbena officinalis:
Another herb commonly used as a digestive tea, verbena is also considered a cure for bilis, an ailment consisting of headache, stomach ache, and loss of appetite, most frequently caused by extreme emotional upset.
Verdolaga (purslane) portulaca oleracea:
Eaten either raw in salad or steamed in mole verde, this succulent annual is traditionally served in Mexico in a pork stew - espinazo con verdolagas - with a tomatillo-based sauce.


Published or Updated on: April 1, 1999 by Karen Hursh Graber © 1999
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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