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Mexican Herbs and Spices

Mexican Herbs and Spices

Are you interested in preparing some spicy Mexican food? This article provides a brief overview about the common herbs and spices used in Mexican cuisine.
Sonia Nair
Mexican food is well-known for their colorful decorations, unique flavors and indigenous herbs and spices. Most of the Mexican dishes contain a generous amount of herbs and spices. They include aromatic leaves and seeds of many plants. If you want to try your hand at any Mexican delicacy, you must have a basic idea of the herbs and spices that impart the characteristic aroma and flavor.

Annatto seeds

The dark red seeds of the annatto plant, which is known achiote in Mexico; are used to impart a yellow color and a distinct flavor to rice dishes and sauces. Annatto seeds are soaked in water for at least an hour before use. In some dishes, only the water used to soak the seeds is used, while in others the seeds are directly added to the dish. Sometimes it is combined with oregano and other spices to make a paste, which is used for marinating meat, fish and poultry. The fruit of the achiote plant is not edible.


This spice also known as the 'Mexican saffron' or 'safflower'. It is usually added in very small amounts. Azafran is mainly used for its color rather than the flavor. It has a slightly bitter flavor. It is mostly used in seafood and chicken dishes that contain rice.


Otherwise known as 'Mexican tea', this is a rare spice used to flavor some dishes made with beans. It is believed that, epazote relieves digestive problems caused by beans. It should be used in very small amounts. Epazote may cause toxic effects in the human body, if consumed in large amounts.


This is the most popular spice used in Mexican dishes. Around 13 varieties of oregano are available and fresh leaves are preferred to dried ones. Oregano is perfect for tomato-based dishes.

Chili powder

Usually, different types of chillies are powdered together and used in Mexican dishes. Sometimes, certain spices are also added to this mixture. Chili powder is an inseparable ingredient of Mexican cuisine; and is used in a wide range of dishes, like salsas, poultry, meat, etc. Different types of chili powder are available in Mexico. Each type gives a different flavor to the dish. Chipotle chili powder gives a special flavor to a variety of foods. Ancho chili powder has a sweet and fruity taste. Domestic chili powder contains some other spices, like cumin, garlic, oregano, salt, and coriander. Green chili powder and pasilla chili powder are also very popular.


Cilantro is nothing other than fresh coriander leaves. As dried cilantro leaves do not retain the flavor, fresh ones are mostly used. Their tangy and pungent flavor gels perfectly with most of the Mexican dishes, like salsas, moles, beans and rice, soups, stews, and pipians. These leaves are mainly used for garnishing and seasoning.


Thyme is known as tomillo in Mexico. This herb with a pungent flavor is an indispensable ingredient in Mexican dishes. It is mainly used in sauces, soups, chili pickles, and marinades.


Cumin seeds or cuminos are aromatic seeds with a special flavor. They are either ground to a powder or used in whole. They are mainly used along with chili powder to balance the flavor of the spices, and are added to meat soups and stews.

Apart from these spices and herbs, there are many more which are either native to Mexico or introduced to the region by Europeans and others. They include papalo, spinach-like chaya, chepiche, chepil, hoja santa, veracruz, hierba buena (spearmint), cayenne, chamomile, coriander seeds, crushed red pepper, mint, nutmeg, sage, tamarindo (tamarind), jengibre (ginger), pimentón dulce (paprika), ajo (garlic), ajonjoli (sesame), albahaca (basil) and anís (aniseed).

Modern Mexican dishes contain a vast array of herbs and spices either native to the country or brought from different parts of the world, especially Europe and Asia. It is these herbs and spices that give the unique flavor to Mexican dishes, which are loved by people all over the world.