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Discover more about the magical ingredients that help make Mexican food so unique, sweet, spicy, and mind-blowingly flavorsome with these Mexican spices, and maybe even get inspired to use them in your own home cooking.
Mexican cuisine has a long history of incorporating various ingredients into dishes, including aromatic herbs, flowers, honey, salt, tequesquite, achiote, chili peppers, and vinegar. Traditionally this was done to make stews tastier and easier to digest, which in time, led to their use in many other foods.
So if you’re eager to learn more about what makes your Mexican food taste so delicious, or want to improve your own Mexican cooking at home, embark on a fascinating journey with me that sheds light on twenty of the cuisine’s most important spices.
The name serrano comes from the central Mexican mountain regions. When Mexican recipes do not mention a specific type of chili pepper or “green chili,” the presumption is that the recipe calls for serrano.
Registering a feisty 10,000-25,000 SHU according to the Scoville scale (which measures the level of heat), serrano peppers can be eaten raw, cooked, roasted, or fried. They can also be chopped up and mixed with other ingredients to create sauces, such as guacamole.
In fact, Mexicans will even place whole serrano peppers on the table at family gatherings so that each person can take one and nibble on them in between bites of their main dish.
Synonymous with Mexican cooking, the jalapeño is one of the most widely used varieties of chili in the world. Jalapeños commonly register around 2,000-8,000 SHU, which, while mild compared to many other chilies, still means they can add a serious dose of heat to dishes.
Jalapeños are red in color when ripe, and the pepper gets its name from Xalapa, Veracruz’s capital. The pepper was first grown in Mexico, where it is still grown in vast quantities to this day.
Its name changes depending on what part of the country you’re in. For example, it’s called chile cuaresmeño in some regions, and there are also different types of jalapeño chili, such as the large and veiny chile alegría, among many others, in Mexican cuisine.
The poblano chili gets its name from centuries of cultivation in Puebla’s Tehuacán Valley. It’s a fleshy, large pepper with a conical shape and wavy edges. Its skin is typically dark green, glistening against the light, and these beloved peppers have a distinct flavor that isn’t particularly spicy.
Their rating of 1,000-2,000 SHU, while still packing some heat, makes them one of the mildest chilis in Mexican cooking. This chili is commonly used once it has turned green in color, and a popular way to serve it is sliced with cream and cheese.
Once mature, the poblano chili turns red in color and becomes the chile ancho (wide chili), which is a key ingredient in moles.
4. Chile de Árbol
The plant’s form and the fact that it grows taller than other chili plants are likely reasons for this Mexican chili’s name, chile de árbol, or “tree chili”.
A typical ingredient of many table sauces, chile de árbol can be eaten whole, despite its heat, and is a common inclusion in many stews.
The chili can rate anywhere between 15,000-30,000 SHU, meaning it can pack some serious heat in the sauces and stews it is used in.
A very hot chili, the average habanero registers between an eyewatering 100,000-350,000 SHU, dwarfing the likes of the jalapeño or chipotle, which typically rate no higher than 8,000 SHU.
The habanero chili is thought to have originated in Havana, Cuba, and was brought over by the Conquistadors. Recent studies, however, have discovered many wild specimens of the plant in Yucatan, leading researchers to believe it may have been in Mexico all along.
The habanero can be eaten when both green or yellow in color, but many believe it becomes more flavorful, with a more complex flavor profile, once it turns orange.
Habenero can be eaten fresh, raw, roasted, or cooked. It is often minced raw to make xnipec sauce, mixed with onion slices and lemon juice, and ground to be used in plenty of spicy sauces. Sometimes, Mexican cooks even dip habanero pepper into their dishes to add extra spice.
The chili manzano, or “apple chili”, is called such because it looks very similar to an apple in shape. It registers a sweat-inducing 12,000-30,000 SHU, making it considerably hotter than the likes of the jalapeño.
Not only resembling an apple in shape and size, the manzano also brings subtle fruity and citrussy notes to the palate, in addition to its roaring heat. This green chili often turns yellow in color as it matures, but some also turn red, which many believe are even spicier.
In Michoacán, manzano chilis are often used in pickles and marinades. In the State of Mexico, residents like to fill them with meat or cheese. While in CDMX, they thinly slice the peppers and mix them with onion to accompany tacos.
The chilaca pepper is a long and thin pepper, measuring up to 20cm in length. It is typically dark green or very dark brown and can be eaten fresh or dry.
The dry form of this chili is known as chile pasilla, or “black chili”. Mexicans commonly roast chilaca peppers to remove the skin and seeds, then cut them into strips to fill tacos or tamales. If ground, the chilis are used in moles (sauces or marinades) or as a base for broths.
Their milder heat by chili standards, registering around 1,000-2,500 SHU, means they are often eaten raw in a range of different dishes.
8. Tabasco Pepper
You may know this chili pepper through the worldwide popularity of Tabasco sauce, but there is so much more to the tabasco pepper than its famous condiment namesake.
Racking up an eye-watering 30,000-50,000 SHU, this chili pepper can deliver some serious heat. While Tabasco sauce itself generally registers around 2,5000-5000 SHU, which is a far milder, more manageable heat, Mexicans will use tabasco in salsas, homemade sauces, and grind it into a chili powder to be used in plenty of dishes.
In authentic Mexican cooking is where you can truly savor the smoky, sweet, and somewhat fruity notes that dance between the fiery heat of these little yellow-to-red beauties, depending on how ripe they are.
Achiote, or “red dye,” derives its name from the Nahuatl achiotl. Traditionally the Mayans used these seeds to color fabrics, in makeup, and dye food.
Achiote is challenging to define in terms of flavor, as it encompasses earthy, smoky, peppery, spicy, and sweet undertones in its flavor profile. Consequently, it makes for a versatile ingredient paired with numerous other flavors and ingredients.
Achiote seeds are commonly ground up and used as a paste, or melted in water or oil to be used as an ingredient in various dishes. Hence, if you want to use achiote without all the hassle and hard labor, the easiest way is to buy it as a ready-made paste to add to your next broth, stew, or sauce recipe.
Achiote is a critical ingredient in many traditional dishes, including the likes of Mexican chorizo and cochinita pibil, a traditional Yucatec Mayan dish of slow-roasted pork.
Allspice is the dried, unripe berries of the evergreen Pimenta dioica plant, which originates from Mexico and Central America but is now found In tropical countries worldwide.
While integral to Caribbean cuisine, allspice is also very popular in Mexican cuisine. Known for its potent fragrance, it has a strong flavor, often described as a combination of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, hence the name “allspice.”
Used to preserve meat, many Mexican dishes use allspice as a flavoring, including red snapper a la veracruzana, mole poblano, cochinita pibil, chicken casseroles, poc chuc, and adobo for tacos al pastor. It is also used in preserves and added to drinks such as pot coffee or Mexican hot chocolate.
In Mexican cuisine, vanilla remains to this day a hugely popular sweet flavor, second only to chocolate in many people’s eyes. It is used to create countless sweets and desserts and is even used in several beverages.
Hailing from Veracruz, this exotic flavor was first brought to Spain in the 16th century, where it was originally used for medicinal purposes. Eventually, natural vanilla found its way into chocolate, and by the 1800s, demand for this angelic combination had truly exploded.
However, today, the use of artificial vanillin has replaced natural vanilla in a wide range of confectionery and dishes. Still, for those with a refined palate, the delicately sweet and floral notes of natural vanilla remain unmistakable, making the desire for artisanal, natural products even greater for certain foodies.
Grown in rich soil in humid conditions, once the vanilla pods have been collected, they are put through a long and rigorous preparation process. This includes boiling the pods in water, wrapping them, and leaving them to dry. This changes the color of the pods from black to dark brown and helps preserve the vanilla essence.
Quelite is a common wild herb found in Mexico. These wild greens, with tender and edible foliage, were highly valued by pre-Hispanic cultures and even played a significant role in their categorization of the natural world.
The Institute of Biology at UNAM, Mexico’s most important university, has an extensive inventory of 244 species and 46 genera from various botanical families.
Quelite consumption is prevalent throughout Mexico, and these herbs even have songs dedicated to them by famous singer Lucha Villa.
Native to Mesoamerica, epazote has been consumed since pre-Hispanic times. The name of the plant derives from the Nahuatl word for “skunk”, epatl, as the plant has a particularly unpleasant odor in its natural form. Thankfully the smell isn’t as potent once cooked and mixed with other food.
Epazote is an aromatic herb that delivers a truly unique flavor to stews and many other dishes. It is an essential ingredient in the likes of pot beans, chicken broth, Tlalpeño broth, green mole, chilpachole, papadzules, and esquites.
It is important to not consume large amounts of epazote, however, as it contains ascaridol, an oil that can be very toxic if consumed in large quantities.
14. Acuyo (Momo or Saint Leaf)
Native to Mexico, acuyo, or saint leaf, is the heart-shaped leaf of the Piper auritum herb plant, an aromatic plant that is part of the pepper family. It grows in humid conditions throughout Central America, and is a very common sight in Mexican milpas and growing on the patios of Mexican apartments and households.
Acuyo, with its sweet anise seed flavor, with notes of eucalyptus, mint, and nutmeg, is often used to make tamales, stuffed peppers, and green mole – all traditional Mexican dishes.
In the Maya region, people use acuyo to prepare pachay (fish with chili) and achiote. Meanwhile, in Chiapas, it is a common ingredient in pork tamales and other barbecue meat dishes. But that’s not all: pre-Hispanic cultures even used acuyo in chocolate making!
15. Chaya (Mayan Tree Spinach)
Chaya is a plant that originates from the Yucatan peninsula and parts of Central America. The ancient Maya people domesticated and used this plant for its various health benefits and today, thousands of years later, chaya leaves are so commonly used in kitchens in the southeast of the country that they are often referred to as the “Mayan tree spinach.”
While renowned for its vitamin content and health benefits, raw chaya leaves are actually highly poisonous to humans. So much so, even cutting the leaves from the plant has to be done with caution.
Hence, you are certain to find this leafy vegetable cooked in a range of stews, soups, and tamales. When cooked, chaya has a similar taste to chard, with a sweet earthiness and slight bitterness, and, as its name suggests, is very close in taste and texture to spinach.
Chipilín is, in fact, categorized as a legume and is native to the Mexico and Central American regions. Its leaves are renowned for their nutrients, with especially high levels of iron, magnesium, and calcium, among others.
It has an earthy, slightly sour flavor, somewhere between spinach and watercress, when cooked, and is boiled or steamed to be used in dishes, or dried to be added as a herb to enhance flavor.
The chipilín tamale is a popular dish in Chiapas, where it is typically stuffed with cheese and chicken. Mexicans also boil the leaves for use in tea, which is consumed as a relaxant and to aid in sleep.
17. Pápalo (Aztec Butterfly)
The green leaves of the pápalo plant, aromatic with a strong flavor, closely resemble a butterfly’s wings in shape, hence their name.
During pre-Hispanic times the Aztecs used these leaves to add flavor and aroma to their dishes, and this continues to this day. Hence, pápalo is most commonly used to flavor various dishes in Mexican cuisine, such as soups, sauces, beans, and salads. It is also a popular addition to barbecue tacos, carnitas, and pork rinds.
In the Puebla mountains, pápalo is consumed raw, wrapped in corn tortillas, and seasoned with salt to accompany dishes such as black bean broths.
18. Hierba de Conejo (Rabbit Herb)
Known as “rabbit bush”, hierba de conejo is commonly used as a flavoring for rice, black beans, and other stews, particularly in Oaxaca. It is named after the animal that happily feasts on it, the rabbit, throughout Mexico.
This quelite grows erratically in Mexico’s central valleys and is especially prevalent during the rainy season. Rabbit herb is a secret culinary ingredient that gives food from Oaxaca a unique flavor, and is also used to soften beans, making them more digestible.
Flavor-wise, it shares similarities to the likes of aniseed and avocado leaves, and the herb is used in so many dishes, including tamales, stews, legume broths, sauces, and moles, throughout the region.
The damiana plant is native to Baja California Sur and Sinaloa and is essentially a hallucinogenic when consumed in high doses.
The Guaycura Indians were the first known group to use damiana, dating back centuries. Missionaries in 16th-century California documented how the northern indigenous people used the leaves for many years.
Traditionally, the leaves were macerated in water to make an infusion claimed to ease muscular or nerve pain and revitalize energy.
Tequesquite is an alkaline mineral complex used in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. It is produced by evaporating and crystallizing brackish and alkaline waters from the bed of Lake Texcoco.
The hydraulic systems implemented under the reign of King Nezahualcóyotl (1429–1472) provided the necessary breakthrough to extract the salt from the lake, and extraction has continued over hundreds of years to this very day.
Tequesquite, a saltpeter or mineral salt mainly composed of chloride and sodium carbonate, is most commonly used as a leavening agent in Mexican cuisine. It is added, for example, to tamale dough, which helps the tamales rise to become the light, fluffy dish we know and love today.
In addition to softening corn husks, tequesquite is also used when cooking beans and preparing dishes such as esquites, nixtamal, and tortillas. Many Mexicans also take it with vinegar to try to quell stomach pain.
21. Worm Salt
Considered an Oaxacan forte, but very much used across Mexico, worm salt may initially not sound the most appetizing, but this salty and spicy ‘condiment,’ for lack of a better word, can add some serious flavor to some beloved Mexican staples.
Referred to as Sal de Gusano, it is made from maguey worms, of which there are two types: red and white, which are ground, roasted, and mixed with salt and sometimes dried chili, depending on preference.
It is commonly sprinkled on orange slices that are taken when drinking mezcal, which in Mexico is a family of agave-based spirits. You can also take worm salt with Tequila.
However, the fun doesn’t stop there. Sal de Gusano can be used to add spice and flavor to sauces, guacamole, and plenty of other Mexican favorites like tacos.
Mexican cuisine brings a truly deep and mind-blowing flavor profile to the foray, and these beloved spices are very much an integral part of that.
Hopefully, this quick and insightful breakdown will help you better understand why Mexican dishes taste a certain way, and inspire you to use them in your own Mexican cooking to take things to a whole new level.
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Contributor: Ana Perusquia is a bilingual writer, editor, and designer from Mexico City, passionate about Mexican cuisine and culture, who has worked in publishing for several years.