Mexican Spices, Seasonings and Chiles
Mexican cuisine is a fusion cuisine that takes elements from both the Mesoamerican and Spanish cooking methods and makes them one unique thing. This is primarily the result of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. 

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they discovered that the Aztec diet consisted primarily of dishes with a corn base. These dishes often included chiles, beans, tomatoes, herbs, vanilla, avocado, papaya, pineapple, achiote (also known as annatto), squash, sweet potato, turkey, and fish. The Spanish introduced olive oil, almonds, beef, chicken, and pork to the Aztec diet.

The spices and herbs native to Mexico include chocolate (cacao), chiles and vanilla. Their increased demand has led to their cultivation all over the world. 

In the United States, we tend to think of Mexican food as being things like burritos, chalupas, enchiladas, fajitas, and tacos. In reality, these are usually Tex-Mex foods that we just associate with Mexican cuisine. In fact, there are similar foods cooked in Mexican kitchens, but they are prepared much differently. Mexican food is all about the freshness of the ingredients. Meats such as beef, pork, and chicken are found locally, whereas Tex-Mex traditionally uses ground beef. Traditional Mexican food also uses cheeses like queso blanco, queso fresco, queso asadero, queso Qaxaca, queso panela, or queso chihuahua. The bright yellow cheese used in Tex-Mex cooking is one hundred percent an American thing. Lastly, sour cream is nonexistent in traditional Mexican cooking. Dishes are instead topped with an assortment of fresh produce such as limes, raw or grilled onions, fresh cilantro, or avocados. 

Onions and Garlic

Some of the most common flavors found in Mexican food are onion and garlic. This is not unusual to anywhere around the world. Both are grown locally, and they are either used fresh or dried and then ground or pulverized for use in many recipes like Carne Asada, Cheese Enchiladas, Pico de Gallo, and seasoning blends. When a recipe calls for fresh onions, you can use white, yellow, or red onions. 

Onions and Garlic get their own category because of their prominence and popularity in Mexican cooking. There are very few dishes that don't have at least one of these as an ingredient.  


  • Mexican Oregano is extremely popular in Mexican cuisine. It is used in sauces, salad dressing, stews, and with meat-based dishes. It has a much earthier flavor than Mediterranean Oregano.

  • Basil is used frequently in tomato-based dishes.

  • Cilantro is extremely popular in Mexican cooking for its light flavor in sauces and salsas. It is also a star in a lot of entrees in Mexican cuisine.

  • Mint is used only sparingly in Mexican cooking.

  • Sage is frequently found in soups and stews.

  • Thyme compliments the heavy flavors of Mexican cuisine with its light


  • Cumin is used primarily in chili seasoning blends to balance out the flavors of other spices, particularly chiles. It is used frequently in taco seasonings. It is used sparingly however, because too much cumin can easily overwhelm a dish.

  • Coriander is used with meat and heavy dishes like stews. You may also find coriander in desserts, breads, or cakes.

  • Allspice is popular with fish, vegetables, and some desserts.

  • Cacao Powder is popular in desserts, moles, and with meats. This is also used in hot chocolate, alongside chiles of all sorts.

  • Nutmeg is used most frequently in desserts and beverages.

  • Cinnamon is used in everything form desserts to beverages. You will find it most frequently paired with chocolate.

  • Epazote is a lesser known spice that is used on beans because it is supposed to help with any stomach discomfort that beans may cause. It is used sparingly because too much can be toxic.

  • Cloves are often found in moles, which are an extremely popular food type in Mexico. A mole is a thick sauce which takes quite a bit of time, effort, and ingredients to make.

  • Annatto Seed, also known as Achiote, are the source of yellow coloring for many grain-based dishes. They have a rich flavor.

Seasoning Blends

Seasoning blends are very common in Mexican cooking. They add a lot of flavor without a lot of effort. These seasonings are all used in a variety of dishes, with different applications depending on who is cooking.

  • Adobo is used with meats, especially beef.

  • Barbacoa is often used in pork based dishes.

  • Chorizo Seasoning is often used in the making of sausage.

  • Habanero Mango is often used on chicken and lighter meats. It also tastes excellent with vegetables.

  • Manzanillo Seasoning is used on everything from tacos to quesadillas. This is an all-purpose seasoning.

  • Mole Seasoning is delicious and helpful when preparing a traditional mole, which may have upwards of 40 ingredients.

  • Yucatan Recado Rojo Rub is used in making a paste to coat chicken, but it can also be used as a dry rub or even in soups and stews. This is a blend that doesn't have exact ingredients, but is instead inspired by the tradition of passing down the recipe from generation to generation. Recado Rojo seasoning blends are often produced in this way.

Mexican Chiles and Chile Powder

Mexican Chiles are a staple in this cuisine. They are used in salsas, stews, and vegetable dishes. A true Mexican dish always has at least some form of chile in it, whether it is fresh, whole dried, flakes or ground. Ground chiles are used as a condiment in much the same way that Americans use ketchup. If by some weird chance chile isn't included, then a hot sauce will be served with the meal or snack. The importance of the chile comes from the Mesoamerican period, which is generally considered to have occurred between 1000 and 1697 AD, where this spicy fruit was considered to be as much of a diet staple as both corn and beans. It is almost as if food without chiles is not food at all. 

Some popular chiles include:

  • Ancho chiles- The dried version of the Poblano chile. It is mildly fruity in flavor and has undertones of plum, raisin, tobacco, and a hint of earthiness. It rates anywhere from 4,000-9,000 on the SHU scale.

  • Chipotle Morita chiles- These chiles are smoky in flavor and are extremely popular for their ability to give flavor even when used in small amounts. They rate from 5,000-10,000 on the SHU scale.

  • Pasilla Negro chiles- These chiles are pungent and taste of chocolate and raisins. They have a rating of 1,000-2,000 SHU.

  • Habanero chiles- With a whopping rating of 150,000-325,000 SHU, these chiles are described as having a tropical coconutty or mango flavor, after the mouth ceases to be on fire.

  • Guajillo chiles- This chile is characteristically just a little tart. It is slightly hot with a rating of  2,500-5,000 SHU.

  • Serrano chiles- A range of 8,000-18,000 SHU describes these chiles. They are crisp, smoky, and kind of fruity in flavor.

  • De Arbol chiles- These chiles have a grassy flavor with an acidic heat. 15,000-30,000 SHU.

Chile powders are just as important to Mexican cuisine as chiles are. They are great for when fresh or dried chiles are unavailable and they are just as spicy and delicious as their whole counterparts. Chile powder is also great for people who don't like the texture of chiles but still want the spiciness of the fruit. 

These are just touching on the many wonderful flavor options in Mexican cooking. There are plenty of other flavors just waiting to be tried, and dishes waiting to be explored. If you are a fan of chiles and fresh produce especially, Mexican cooking might just be the cuisine for you. 

Related Posts

Tex Mex vs. Mexican
A Spicy guide to New Mexican Cuisine
What is the Hot Pepper Scale?
Why Are We Enjoying Spicier Food? 

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