Saturday, 14 April 2012

All the Common Mexican Herbs used in Cooking - Food

Mexican cuisine makes most of us think of assertive spices; mostly chilies and cumin. This combination of spices is one, which is a perfect representative of the country's culinary history; an ingredient, which came from the old world with the Spanish and one, which has been a central part of Mexican food for thousands of years.

Chilies of all sorts have been in use as spices for thousands of years in Mexico; peppers of all varieties (as are tomatoes and potatoes, which are related members of the nightshade family) are native to the Americas and these vegetables were one of the dietary staples in Mexico before the arrival of Europeans, as they are to this day.

You are probably familiar with jalapeno peppers as an ingredient in salsas and (in pickled form) as a condiment and perhaps the smaller, slightly hotter Serrano pepper as well. There are dozens of different chilies, which make a regular appearance in traditional Mexican food; many, perhaps even most Mexican recipes would be nearly unthinkable without these spicy vegetables. Whether fresh, picked as in escabeche or dried and ground, ancho peppers, pasilla peppers and many others are an essential part of creating the authentic flavors of Mexican cuisine.

Culantro, Mexican oregano and epazote are three common herbs used in Mexican cooking which are native to the Americas. Culantro is used widely in Central America and the Caribbean, but is largely unknown outside of the region. Like many other Mexican spices, it is easier to find in the US than it once was, but it has a flavor which is similar enough to cilantro that cilantro can safely be substituted if cilantro is unavailable.

Do not let the name fool you - Mexican oregano may taste something like a more assertive version of the familiar Greek oregano, but this herb is actually a close relative of lemon verbena. Its flavor is an important component in a number of Mexican dishes, but you can substitute the old world herb if needed. However, Mexican oregano is becoming easier to find. You can usually purchase this herb from specialty spice shops as well as Mexican groceries. It is usually used dried, just like Greek oregano.

Epazote, on the other hand, is an herb for which there is no real substitute. This herb is used to flavor beans in traditional Mexican recipes. While its flavor is something like that of tarragon, it is not recommended to substitute this or any other herb in a Mexican recipe, which calls for epazote. It has a flavor which is all its own.

Cumin is one of the spices, which we think of the most in connection to Mexican food. This spice is also a staple of Turkish and other Mediterranean cuisines; introduced to Mexico by the Spanish (who themselves were introduced to it by Arabs during the Moorish period in Spain), this ingredient was adopted by Mexican cooks with enthusiasm. This newcomer quickly became an important ingredient in a great many Mexican dishes.

In a way, Mexican food represents one of the world's first fusion cuisines, with flavors and ingredients both native to the Americas as well as those, which came over to the new world from Europe. It is a marriage of flavors and culinary techniques, which has been an incredibly successful one - without the blend of old world and new world flavors, which define Mexican food, it just would not be the same.

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