Epazote (pronounced eh-pah-ZOH-teh) is an aromatic herb commonly used in the cuisines and traditional medicines of central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Its somewhat pungent flavor profile is described by many as “medicinal” and has notes of oregano, anise, citrus, mint, and even tar or creosote.
The Epazote Plant
The epazote plant is a leafy annual or short-lived perennial plant that can reach 4 feet in height. Its dark green, long, slender, jagged leaves end in a point. The flowers are green and very small; they produce thousands of tiny seeds
Native to Central America, where it has been grown for culinary and medicinal purposes for countless generations, epazote has spread as a “weed” (growing in empty lots and by roadsides) throughout a large part of North and South America and even into Europe and Asia, where practically no one is aware of its uses.
Culinary Uses of Epazote
The herb is used almost exclusively in traditional Mexican and Guatemalan cuisines, where both the fresh leaves and tender stems are used. Epazote is a strong-tasting and –smelling plant, so not everyone takes to it right away. It can be somewhat of an acquired taste, but it adds a wonderful rustic layer of flavor to many dishes.
Epazote is most frequently used to season frijoles de la olla (pot beans), especially when they are black beans. It is also common in stews and rustic dishes made with mushrooms or corn. A sprig of the herb is often found inside a quesadilla made with corn tortillas. The flavor compounds in epazote do not stand up to heat for a long time, so the herb is added to dishes near the end of cooking.
Aside from its function as a flavoring, epazote is also purported to reduce the gas and bloating experienced by many when eating beans and cruciferous vegetables.
Medicinal Uses of Epazote
This herb has been used in traditional herbal medicine for centuries to treat intestinal parasites in humans and domestic animals. An epazote tea is made from the plant’s leaves and/or flowers and ingested in moderate amounts. Intestinal cramps and other stomach and liver problems may be treated in the same way. Epazote can be toxic when ingested in excess, however, so this treatment is not used in contemporary Western medicine (human or veterinary), as other, equally effective, remedies exist.
Where to Find Epazote
Leaves and stems of this plant are used almost exclusively in its fresh form in its native land. Bunches of it can be purchased in some Mexican grocery stores or farmer’s markets. Should you be lucky enough to purchase some but then find you need only a small portion of it right away, don’t hesitate to freeze the remainder. Since epazote is eaten cooked, there is no need to keep it crisp, and freezing is a good way to keep the herb on hand.
If you can’t get it fresh, grow your own; it is an easy-to-grow and hearty annual. Epazote seeds are available online if they don’t stock them at your local garden center.
If you are unable to get it fresh and can’t grow it, at least try to get some of the herbs in dried form. The flavor of the dried form of this herb will be much less intense, but it will give you an authentic Mexican flavor profile that you can’t get anywhere else.
The Word Epazote and Its Synonyms
This herb is used in everyday cooking in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca and in the Yucatan Peninsula among the Mayan-speaking peoples, but the word epazote derives from Nahuatl, the language spoken by the ancient Aztecs (and still very much alive today). If we translated the word from its original language into English, we would get something like “stinky sweat”—not very appetizing!
In some parts of Mexico and Guatemala, the plant is called pazote, ipasote, apazote, hierba hedionda (“stinky weed”), pazoli, and pizate, In Peru, it known as paico, a word that comes from Quechua. In English it is sometimes called goosefoot, skunk weed, wormseed, or Mexican tea; the last two of these terms allude to its medicinal use to combat intestinal parasites.