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Gratefully, the days when it took diligent searching to find a sprightly bunch of cilantro in your local supermarket are gone. Fresh epazote for a pot of beans? No problem. As herbs like cilantro, culantro, and epazote inch their way into the American herb canon, there’s still a bounty of Mexican herbs to discover — many of which were used in Mesoamerican cooking millennium before the Spanish arrived, and thus retain their indigenous and fun-to-pronounce names. Here’s a guide to lesser-known fresh Mexican herbs available in NYC.
This distinctive herb is an essential ingredient in the heroically large Poblano sandwiches, cemitas. The sharp flavor of the papalo buzzes through the layers of cheeses and meats in the sandwich like a serrated knife. The name comes from papalotl, the Nahuatl word for “butterfly,” though the pretty scalloped leaves belie its pungent bite. It can also be chopped fine and added to guacamole.
The epazote plant has serrated, tapering leaves, similar to a dandelion greens. It’s a perennial that grows wild in many parts of Mexico and the United States, with a punchy resinous aroma as sharp as gasoline. It’s indispensable when cooking black beans and is also used to flavor quesadillas, mushroom dishes, and can also be made into a tea to ameliorate gastric distress, which is why it’s traditionally added to the bean pot.
Depending on the region you’re in and to whom you’re talking, pipicha goes by several names: chepiche, pipitza, or papalo delgado. There are a few varieties of this herbaceous plant, one of which looks like tarragon and the other like miniature papalo, both of which are used in corn and squash dishes, and sometimes eaten raw in salads. Its brassy, cilantro-like flavor is a vital addition to sopa de guias, a soup made with squash vines, flowers, and herbs.
Halachas or alaches goes by the Latin name Anoda cristata. It’s essentially a weed, with soft, spear-shaped leaves and small purple flowers, eaten regionally in Mexico. It can be sautéed, like most greens; it partners well with zucchini; and it’s cooked into a soup with mint, corn, and squash. It can also be brewed into a tea as a homeopathic cure-all.
“Quelites” can refer to any leafy green vegetable: mustard greens, rapini, amaranth, or even spinach, though the ones commonly sold as quelites in Mexican markets are often a variety of lamb’s quarters, a wild spinach of sorts. Sautéed with garlic or onion, the greens taste similar to spinach and are extremely high in vitamins and minerals. This bunch of wilting quelites, above, look like a variety of amaranth. Yerba buena, mint, a common Mexican herb, can be seen in the background.
These fetching bundles are the tall stalks of the lemongrass plant, used for making one of the most popular Mexican teas. It’s considered a digestive and is also used medicinally.