By Karen Hursh Graber, writing from Mexico
Many Mexican dishes, from the iconic mole poblano to the Yucatan’s escabeche and chilmole, are often called “spicy.” These and other regional specialties rely on spices for their distinctive flavors, but what exactly are spices? And how do they differ from herbs, with which they are so often combined in Mexican cooking?
Culinary herbs are generally the leafy portions of a plant, preferably used fresh, although they can be dried. Cilantro, parsley and mint are just a few of the signature herbs found in Mexico’s cuisine.
Spices, however, come from any other part of the plant besides the leafy ones. They are usually dried, and can consist of berries, like allspice and peppercorns; roots, such as ginger; flower buds, like cloves; seeds, such as nutmeg; or flower stamens, in the case of saffron.
And some generous plants give us both. The cilantro plant, which provides the leafy green herb that is central to countless Mexican recipes, also gives us the spice coriander, the plant’s dried seed. And the allspice tree, which flourishes in the Sierra Oriente of Puebla and Veracruz, pro- vides the allspice berry, dried and used as a spice, as well as the fragrant leaves, which are used as herbs.
Using Spices in Mexican Fare
One dish, from the mountain town of Zacapoaxtla, uses the leaves and the berries of the allspice tree in a chicken and vegetable stew. Chilpozontle, as the stew is called, also incorporates three kinds of dried chiles, which cross the somewhat indistinct line from fresh produce to spices when they are dried.
Allspice, along with annatto, or achiote, was one of the spices indigenous people used in pre-Hispanic times. When the Spaniards arrived, they introduced a broader array of culinary ingredients, including cilantro, or coriander, and several others.
It was the quest for spices that brought the Spaniards across the ocean in the first place, with expeditions to find routes to the East, the source of highly prized spices such as cinnamon and cloves. Although these two, like several exotic ingredients, would continue to be sourced from Asia, others were found on the American continent.
Diego Chanca, a Spanish doctor on one of Columbus’ voyages, wrote of finding a tree that yielded a spice tasting like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. This was, of course, the allspice tree, found in Mexico and in the West Indies. The resemblance of the dried berries to peppercorns gave this spice the confusing name of pimienta, the Spanish word for pepper.
Whether from Asia or the New World, spices were combined with indigenous herbs and chiles to create distinctive Mexican flavors. Many of the ingredients considered characteristically Mexican, such as cumin and coriander, actually came from elsewhere. In addition to the maps and charts drawn by explorers looking for spice routes, careful illustrations of the spices themselves were made.
Illustrations also accompanied the handwritten cookbooks that have been preserved by Mexico’s National Counsel for Arts and Culture, and it is evident from these that the use of a variety of spices began during the Colonial period. In the convent kitchens of the Spanish monks and nuns, savory stews and sweet desserts combined New World ingredients with Asian spices.
Antes, or fruit trifles, were made from native mangos, pineapples and coconuts, and flavored with Eastern spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Torta de arroz, a precursor of present day rice molds, incorporated fresh jalapeño chiles, along with the spices cumin and saffron, to season rice layered with picadillo.
Although the sophisticated combination of ingredients that constitutes Mexican cuisine began in the conventos, today’s chefs and home cooks use spices on a daily basis in nearly every meal. Anise and cinnamon, usually considered sweet, are found in several regional moles. Even vanilla, generally considered a dessert flavoring, is used in shellfish and vegetable dishes.
Tips for Buying and Cooking with Spices
When using spices, buying whole ones and grinding them is far superior to purchasing them pre-ground in terms of both flavor and economy. Whole spices have a much longer shelf life and yield a more intense flavor when freshly ground. Any coffee or spice grinder will work, as long as it is dedicated only to spices. And always store them in the darkest, coolest part of the kitchen, away from the heat of the stove.
Mexico’s moles and pipians are good showcases for a variety of spices, and most can be used with poultry, meat, fish or vegetables. From time to time, consider featuring a menu of food from a certain region of the country, where certain spices characterize the regional dishes and bring the menu together. A meal from the eastern Sierra of Puebla and Veracruz, for example, could consist of a spice-marinated cold vegetable appetizer, a pipian, and a spice-flavored fruit dessert.