My journey from burning agua to being a great cook!

How Do You Spice Up Mexican Food?

How Do you Spice up Mexican food?
There’s only one way to spice up Mexican food and that is to literally use different spices.  Dozens of spices are typically used in Mexican cuisine, but for those of us who never learned to cook, it can be daunting.  A walk to my favorite corner store grocer reveals a rack of various spices all mysteriously taunting me to learn to use them.  In doing my research for learning how to cook, I was immediately struck with how many choices a person has when cooking Mexican food.

Grandma’s Spice Rack
My grandmother’s spice rack was a wonder to me.  There were always some kinds of powders or leaves going into the food.  Who knew what this magical ritual could do to food?  We ate the amazing flavors that were the result of that brew, and we loved the taste, flavor, smell and color of it all.  

A list provided to me by Mi Costeñita a food distributor based in Illinois supplies at least 50 varieties to local grocery stores.

ACHIOTE ENTERO annatto seeds NUEZ MOSCADA whole nutmeg
ACHIOTE MOLIDO ground annatto seeds NUEZ MOSCADA MOLIDA ground nutmeg
AJO GRANULADO granuleted garlic OREGANO ENTERO whole oregano
AJONJOLI natural sesame seeds OREGANO MOLIDO ground oregano
AZAFRAN FLOR saffron flower PAPRIKA paprika
CANELA MOLIDA ground cinnamon PEPITA NATURAL hulled pumpkin seeds
ANCHO MOLIDO ground ancho chili PIMIENTA DULCE ENTERA whole allspice
ARBOL MOLIDO ground arbol chili PIMIENTA DULCE MOLIDA ground allspice
GUAJILLO MOLIDO ground guajillo chili PIMIENTA NEGRA ENTERA whole black papper
PIQUIN MOLIDO ground piquin chili PIMIENTA NEGRA MOLIDA ground black papper
PIQUIN ENTERO whole piquin chili AZAFRAN BOLITA whole saffron
QUEBRADO crushed chili CASCABEL cascabel chili
CILANTRO BOLITA coriander seeds MORITA morita chili
HOJAS CILANTRO coriander leaves AJONJOLI BLANCO white sesame seeds
CLAVO ENTERO whole clove AZUFRE sulfur
CLAVO MOLIDO ground clove CARBONATO powder
COMINO ENTERO whole cumin CHILE P/NARANJA chili for orange
COMINO MOLIDO ground cumin COMINO MIX cumin mix
CAL lime MOSTAZA AMARILLA yellow mustards seeds
GENGIBRE ENTERO whole ginger MOSTAZA NEGRA brown mustards seeds
GENGIBRE MOLIDO ground ginger PIMIENTA BLANCA MOLIDA ground white pepper
HOJAS DE LAUREL bay leaves CURRY POWDER curry power
MENUDO MIX CHILE menudo mix chili ACHIOTE CONDIMENTADO condimented annato
MENUDO MIX ESPECIE menudo spice mix LAUREL MOLIDO ground bay
SAL DE GRANO grain salt HOJAS DE LAUREL bay leaves

The Plan
I am going to go through this list and others and try to use every spice available at least once as I am learning to cook.  I’m going to start with this list and cook my way through every ingredient.  I noticed some things on the list where spice mixes which I’m going to try to prepare from scratch first.  Then use the mixes for convenience if they are time savers.

What are Spices?
Spices are a class of aromatic substances that add fragrance, flavor, coloring or preservative qualities to food.  They are a botanical substance root, bark, seed, plant, vegetable or fruit categories.  Spices may have gained popular use among humans for their antimicrobial and medicinal qualities before the age of refrigeration or modern medicine.  Scientists feel this explains why food is spicier in warmer climates as the need for preservation was highest.

How were Spices Used
Spices are most commonly used on meat probably due to the preservative qualities of some spices, and the tendency of meat to spoil.

Flavor Characteristics
The variation of flavor characteristics in spices can have a full range of sensory attributes like sour, herbaceous, woody, sweet, piquant or hot, pungent, fruity, bitter, umami, sulfury, cooling, floral, pungent, and nutty.  These are just a common list.

argentine spices

Herbs are a different and distinct category of ingredient used to flavor, add color or fragrance or preserve foods.  They are made of leaves, flowers or stems.

Nutritional Value
Since spices are used in small quantities because of their strong flavors, they add very little caloric value even though some spices are made from seeds and have oils and proteins.  Most add high levels of vitamins, essential oils, minerals, antioxidants and can have great health benefits.
I have several friends who tout the medicinal qualities of spices as an alternative to traditional western medicine.  My opinion is the scientific experiments have to be done.  Thousands of years of tradition can’t all be wrong.

Spices are so important to history that trade routes were developed for the commerce of spices throughout ancient times.  My understanding of history is that the Spanish were eager to find new trade routes because of the high cost of spices that they financed the Columbus expeditions.  


Mexican spices

Mestizo Food
This was the beginning of the European influence on Mesoamerican foods.  Mexican foods especially have the history of the country like a well-worn tapestry of ingredients in their recipes, which makes them so special to make.

I love the feeling that I am following the ancient traditions of the Mexica woman in the kitchen.  They have kept the indigenous history alive through recipes handed down from generation to generation.  I am still amazed to this day with the variety of spices available at the tiniest of Mexican stores.  Bags and bags of different spices to satisfy any palate are available wherever you go shopping in a Mexican neighborhood.

Fresh or Dried
Spices can be bought either fresh or dried in either or whole or ground varieties.  According to Wikipedia, “The flavor of a spice is derived in part from compounds (volatile oils) that oxidize or evaporate when exposed to air.”  Whole spices have a longer shelf life up to two years; the ground varieties only last about 6 months.  Whole spices traditionally have been ground with mortar and pestle in Mexico but now graters are common as well a pepper and salt for that matter being sold in their own mills.

salt and pepper grinders

Memories of My Family
The memories I have of women using spices to cook Mexican food are usually something like; the food was too hot (piquant) or spicy for the kids in our Mexican family to eat.  To combat this, the use of sour cream to dilute the heat became popular in the family.  The memory makes me laugh as the family now have the Ortega style of eating tamales and pozole with sour cream on the side.  Some kids could eat the heat and the spice from a very young age.  My palate had to grow as I got older.  

My Preferences
My preference for spice and heat is this.  I like spicy food whatever the country.  I especially like the balance of some cuisines that have sweet and spicy flavors.  I am always willing to try a new flavor, color, fragrance in food.  As far as heat or piquant goes, I enjoy inferno levels in snacks or finger foods or something you eat by itself like nuts, fruits, meat on a stick, wings, or vegetables like corn.  However, when I am eating a meal like breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, I prefer medium heat or piquant flavors.

My Journey
I am most excited about learning to use spices in the food that I cook.  I am on a journey and every day I learn more and more about the elements of cooking.  It will be so gratifying when I can go to my spice rack and know what to use when.  Right now, the common salt, pepper and garlic powder.  I bought cinnamon and cumin for the first time in my life last month.  This month I will be investing in a full spice rack.

cumin and cinnamon
Follow me on this journey!  I’m going to be using new spices as often as I can.  I would love to hear your comments below.

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