Mexican cuisine is an eclectic combination of dishes and cooking styles that have roots in various regions of the country. Some tastes were influenced by the Spanish, but there are also dishes that owe their existence to the native peoples of Mexico. Like many countries, the cuisine varies from area to area, and there is not just one generic type of Mexican food. There are however some spices that can be found in food from different regions.
Many people think “spicy” when they think of Mexican cuisine, and while that can be true, it is often more about a depth of flavor than just heat.
Chili is used in Mexican cooking in form of the peppers themselves either fresh or dried and also in the form of chili powder. Chili peppers are usually the heat that you find in a Mexican dish. The amount of heat in a chili pepper can vary from mildly warm to blow the top of your head off hot. As a matter of fact, new and hotter peppers are being created all the time. Some of the names that may be familiar are ancho, jalapeno, Aleppo, Scotch bonnet, poblano, habanero and cayenne. Chili powder combines the ground chili peppers with other spices which may include paprika, cumin, oregano, garlic powder and salt.
Cumin is a seed that is ground and is one of the main ingredients in many blends of chili powder. It can be a very strong spice and has been popular around the world for literally thousands of years. The flavor most associated with a bowl of chili is actually cumin. The flavor is described as nutty and peppery and behind black pepper it is the second most popular spice in the world.
Cilantro is a fresh green herb and coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant. This spice looks a little like parsley in its fresh form but has a very different flavor, it has citrus undertones. This is one of the primary ingredients in the typical salsa that is served in Mexican restaurants and stands worldwide. It is often added to dishes that use tomatoes.
Garlic has found its way into a variety of Mexican dishes. It can be used fresh, jarred or dry. It can be added to taco and tamale fillings as well as bean and rice dishes.
Cinnamon is used in Mexican cooking but primarily in drinks and desserts.
Azafran or Mexican saffron is used to give rice the beautiful yellow color. It comes in threads and can be very expensive. The flavor can be very bitter and it is used sparingly. Other spices that you should have in the house if you are going to be making some Mexican food are allspice, paprika, cloves, oregano, mint, nutmeg, sage and thyme.
Since the cooking of Mexico incorporates many different styles and regions, there are variations from one region to another. Much of the Mexican food we eat in the United States has been Americanized to appeal to a greater number of diners. For an authentic Mexican cookbook, check out Rick Bayless. His cookbook is a good place to start learning about the food and spices of Mexico.