Nutmeg is an ingredient that tends to be overlooked in the kitchen. With a fascinating taste that is mildly sweet, somewhat woody, and a bit peppery, it is used mostly for desserts or drinks. A native ingredient from Indonesia, nutmeg comes from an evergreen tree, now planted in more countries, that found its way to Mexico in the years of the Spanish Colony with its vast and intensive trade routes to the East.
Many people think that the vanilla bean originally came from Madagascar, but even though vanilla beans are grown there, they originated and were first cultivated in the lush state of Veracruz, which physically hugs the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, vanilla grown outside of Mexico has to be pollinated by hand, since the only insect that will pollinate it is the stingless Melipona bee, which only lives, and can only survive, in Mexico.
Corn has been a central part of the Mexican diet and culture since ancient times. Not only is it eaten fresh in its many varieties, its dried kernels are used for an infinity of things, including masa to make everything from tortillas to tamales. It’s husks are also treasured as an ingredient to wrap and cook food in. Tamales, of course, have remained the wrapped and cooked food par excellence in Mexico.
Purslane or verdolagas, one of those ingredients that Mexicans hanker for when outside of Mexico, is likely to be growing in your backyard. In Mexico, it is considered one of the quelites or edible herbs. It is nutritious and succulent, yet it has long been considered a weed in the United States. Indeed, once it grows roots, it spreads and grows fast.
Mexican chocolate is quite different from regular bittersweet chocolate sold throughout the world. It is sweeter, yet with contrasting layers of flavor that seem to sweep your tongue in waves as you take a bite. It is also grainy, practically gritty. It is traditionally made from a mixture of toasted cacao beans, ground almonds, regular sugar and cinnamon.
The name Hoja Santa translates to “sacred leaf.” The leaves of the hoja santa plant are heart-shaped with a thick velvety texture. These leaves can grow up to a foot and sometimes more. I find them to be truly beautiful. Though hoja santa is found throughout Mexico, it is mostly used in the south. Mexican cooks use hoja santa judiciously not only because of it’s strong, unique, unexpected taste, but also because too much of it is not good for you, just like epazote.
I first tried chipilín in Chiapas, Mexico. First, in a soup, then in tamales, then in a stew, then in a delicious omelette… After walking around many towns in that state, I was surprised to find it grown in tall bushes in the front and back lawns of many homes. After being smitten with its flavor, which is a cross somewhat between watercress and spinach but a bit milder, and its lovely gentle but meaty bite, I came back to DC wishing I had a chipilín bush too!
Funny, it wasn’t until recently that allspice became incorporated into Mexican local cuisine. Allspice has been grown in Mexico since the 1600’s but was seen as an exotic and expensive spice for export. Allspice is as unique and simple as it sounds. It is the only spice that grows exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. When…
Cilantro is also known by many names like culantro, coriander and even Chinese parsley. Although it didn’t originate in Mexico, it has grown such strong roots in its cuisine, to the point that its hard to think about Mexican cooking without it. It has delicate, paper thin leaves and tender stems. Its deep green color tends to be shinny too.
Saffron native to Asia, was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards, who in turn learned how to use it from the Arabs. Once in Mexico, it took strong roots especially in the Yucatan Peninsula and the South East regions.