Common Flavoring Ingredients in Traditional Mexican Cuisine

Spices and Vegetables That Give Mexican Food Its Signature Taste

Pork taco
Claudia Totir / Getty Images

Traditional Mexican cuisine has a distinct taste and it's made up of a few common ingredients. That spicy flavor is due to things like onions, garlic, chile powders, herbs, spices, and a few that are specific to this style of food. Try using a combination of these different flavors to season your meats and vegetables to create true Mexican flavors.

Garlic and Onions

Garlic is among the most common flavors you will find in Mexican food. It comes fresh, in a jar, or in powdered form and is used in many recipes. Salsa, taco seasoning, and Spanish rice are just a few recipes that rely heavily on garlic.

Onions are found in many Mexican recipes, often in conjunction with garlic. It's often used fresh, though you'll find that onion powder is very useful as well.

Spices

Oregano and cumin bring a lot to that signature Mexican flavor. They are two of the main herbs used to spice up dishes.

Mexican oregano gives dishes a rich, earthy flavor. There are other types of oregano, such as the Mediterranean varieties that are popular in Italian cuisine, but Mexican oregano is a little different. Not a true oregano, it grows as a shrub and has a more delicate flavor than the oregano you may be used to. It pairs well with tomato-based dishes and lends an interesting flavor to other recipes.

Cumin has been around since the beginning of history. Its origin lies somewhere in the Mediterranean but has expanded in popularity because it is grown easily all over the world. It has a toasty yet somewhat bitter taste and gives Mexican dishes a certain flavor that cannot be replaced.

Chile Powder

A typical chile powder is actually a blend of dried, powdered chiles, cumin, and oregano. Other spices are sometimes included in the mix, but those are the key ingredients. It is used primarily for seasoning meats and vegetables but has other uses as well.

Ancho chile powder is another wonderful Mexican flavor. It is almost sweet and has rich dried fruit flavors. One of its more unusual uses is in Mexican hot chocolate, in which it adds a unique spice to the rich, sweet drink.

Another chile powder commonly used and gaining popularity outside of Mexico is chipotle. In reality, it's just a jalapeño that has been dried and smoked. Chipotle has a distinctive flavor that goes well in many sauces and salsas. It also is the primary flavor in adobo, used as both a rub and a marinade.

Unusual Flavors

Epazote is one of the lesser-known spices. It is used to flavor beans and is supposed to calm any intestinal discomfort beans may cause. It also is known as "Mexican tea." You'll find this to be very pungent and it should be used sparingly as it is poisonous in large quantities.

Cocoa is used in several dishes to add a very rich, warm flavor. Spices combined with small amounts of cocoa and peanut butter are used to make mole, a thick sauce that is often served over chicken.

Cinnamon, cloves, and anise are also used to add unique dimensions of flavor to Mexican dishes. Raisins can be used to flavor certain dishes as well.