Many of the corn-, bean- and rice-based dishes we love from Mexican cuisine depend on a combination of spices—and the country's meat and fish dishes, too, are definitely not known for their blandness. Still, most Mexican dishes aren't knock-your-socks off spicy; there's plenty of subtlety and nuance amid the heat. Much of the heat and lots of flavor comes from the use of fresh and dried chiles; fresh herbs are widely used, too. There are many regional differences in Mexican food, but here's an overview of some of the most commonly used spices.
Mexican cooks rely heavily on garlic—whether fresh or dried (as a powder)—for flavor in so many dishes. Its pungent taste can take a ho-hum salsa from good to great; it's also ubiquitous in grilled meat dishes such as carne asada.
Although many spice brands simply sell "oregano," there are actually a number of varieties of this herb. Mexican oregano is one, and it's related to verbena, with an earthier, kickier flavor and scent than some other oreganos. This means it holds up well in spicy dishes, particularly salsa, burritos, tacos, and enchiladas.
Bright red and spicy, ground cayenne pepper pops up in a range of cuisines, including Mexican. The heat of the cayenne lands somewhere between that of jalapeño and habanero, and it has a mildly sweet edge. It's commonly used in spice blends (such as chili powder) and in enchilada sauce. We like it as the finishing touch on grilled Mexican corn.
Fresh cilantro is widely used in Mexican cooking, added at the end of cooking and used in uncooked dishes like guacamole. Though dried cilantro is used by some Mexican cooks, we don't recommend it.
Mexican cooks use this spice in both sweet and savory dishes—if you've ever tried Mexican hot chocolate, you've tasted the delightful interplay of zippy cinnamon with bitter chocolate. Churros and mole sauce are other classic dishes that incorporate cinnamon. In Mexico, the preferred kind is Ceylon cinnamon, which is distinct from cassia varietals and has a subtle, intricate flavor.
The dried seeds of the cilantro plant are known as coriander, and their lemony flavor and floral aroma is used in everything from beans to chicken. Coriander works wonderfully with cumin (another popular spice in Mexican cuisine).
This rich and aromatic berry, which Mexican cooks toast and grind, adds flavor to Mexican fish, vegetable, and meat dishes, as well as salsas, moles, and adobos. It has a warmth and a slight kick, and is especially popular in kitchens in the Yucatán.