• Epazote is also known as Mexican tea, or wormseed. ( Omar Bárcena via Flickr)
It adds flavour to everything from quesadillas to mole – and for one Mexican chef, the smell is like a portal to the ancient past.
By
Kylie Walker

22 Jul 2019 - 2:05 PM  UPDATED 31 Jul 2019 - 11:03 AM

From a grandmother’s remedy for the flu to a taste of Mexican history – and a fairly pungent flavour – epazote packs a lot into its leaves.

“Epazote is linked to the ancient history of Mexican people. I think of it as a portal to our past,” says chef Luis Valenzuela, when SBS Food chats to him about this versatile leafy green plant.  “When I cook with it, its aroma always tricks my mind and take me back to the dry smell of the pyramids in Mexico, to that land of mystery.

“Epazote was a herb used by the native people that inhabited the central region and northern part of Mesoamerica.”

Today, he explains, “It is not a common herb all over the republic. Mainly it is used in the central part of Mexico.”

Valenzuela, one of the hosts of SBS Food show The Latin Kitchen, says epazote is possibly his favourite herb.

“Epazote … is very earthy.  I think in English it’s called wormseed.  If you could imagine almost, you know when there’s rain, like the dew in the morning and then you smell that sort of freshness from the earth?  That’s what epazote smells like,” he says in the show, while making sopes tapatios (refried beans over corn cakes).  

One of the less flattering names the plant goes by is skunkweed, which doesn’t sound promising at all, but Valenzuela reassures us it has a lot to offer.  

“Epazote is an ancient herb used by the Aztecs, and the meaning of it meant skunk.  What they meant is that the epazote is very pungent, it’s earthy,” he says.

The flavour, he tells us, is a little like dried mushrooms, but with notes of earth and oregano. “I love using it in quesadillas, beans, chickpeas, marinades and rubs.”

In The Latin Kitchen, as well as those sopes, he also uses in in a black bean soup, and a creamy corn salad.

Domingo de la Hoya, the chef/owner of Dos Senoritas Mexican restaurant in Sydney’s Gladesville, is another fan.

“It’s very important for us [Mexicans],” he says. “Epazote has always been in our cooking.”

He also remembers it being used as herbal medicine. “I’ve seen it drunk as a tea, and … in the old ways, if you had the flu or a bad stomach, it was a herbal remedy… the grandmas, they gave you that.” **

De la Hoya, who came to Australia 11 years ago, is originally from Guadalajara. At Dos Senoritas, he uses epazote in everything from two of the restaurant’s specialties – mole poblano (chicken in a green sauce) and mole Oaxaca (chicken in a dark chilli-chocolate sauce) – to tamales.

When he can (it’s a seasonal plant) de la Hoya buys it fresh, and then for the rest of of the year, he uses the dried version, which he buys from Fireworks Foods.  

You probably won’t spot this aromatic herb, also known as Mexican tea, at your local greengrocer but the dried herb is easy to buy; look for it at specialist retailers and Latin delis. Even in Mexico, Valenzuela tells us, it’s very common to use the dried version.

But what if you want to make a recipe – like these quesadillas azules con hongos (blue corn quesadillas with mushroom) – that says dried epazote won’t do?

Blue corn quesadillas with mushrooms

For that particular recipe, you could use fresh tarragon instead, but the good news is that if you’re keen to do more Mexican cooking, you can grow your own epazote, and the seeds are sold by quite a few boutique seed companies here in Australia.

 “It’s so easy and quick to grow from seed - it’s literally like a weed! - that this is the probably the best option for most people,” says Gerardo Lopez, co-founder of popular Mexican eatery La Tortilleria.

Epazote’s popularity might not just be because of the flavour it adds to dishes. Some research suggests it might also act as a preservative in bean dishes – a plus for cooks in generations past who didn’t have refrigeration.

It has been used in the past as an antihelminthic (a treatment for intestinal worms)**, and it’s also said that cooking beans with epazote helps reduce flatulence.

But whatever benefits science might still be discovering, epazote has already claimed its position in the kitchen of many Mexicans.

Give it a go in these chicken and egg chilaquiles (a great way to use up leftover tortillas):

Chicken and egg chilaquiles with tomatillo salsa

Or in the classic combination with black beans, in Valenzuela’s black bean soup, or his sopes.

Sopes, a popular Mexican dish, are like a thick pancake with toppings. The base is made from flattened rounds of a dough made with corn masa, or masa harina, a treated corn flour also used for tortillas. The rounds are usually given a little edge, to hold the toppings in, after cooking.

In The Latin Kitchen, Valenzuela tops his sopes with creamy, flavour-packed beans, salsa, salty cotija cheese (feta is a good substitute, he says) and egg. How good does that sound! But if you’re thinking “Okay, so I’m sorted on epazote, but I don’t have a tortilla press, so I can’t do that one”, here’s a fun solution.

Luis Valenzeula has his grandma’s tortilla press. But he also has a great tip for those of us not so lucky.

“This is called a tortillero. It’s a Mexican tortilla press. This was my grandma’s, actually. According to her it was made in the early 1900s,” says Valenzeula in the show, as he swiftly turns a ball of sopes dough into a flat pancake.

“Now if you’re like most of my friends, you would not happen to have one of these. I’m going to show you a little trick,” he says. “You can use a book. My father, he would kill me for doing this because he loves books, but if you put a piece of plastic on top of it, you don’t run the risk of ruining the book or the dough.”

Using a large book, he puts half of a sheet of plastic on a page and the dough on top. The other half of the plastic is then folded over the dough. Close the book and press down and you’ve got a sope ready to go.

“You could not tell what was on a press and the other one was in a book!” he says.

While there’s a lot to be said for tradition, and the joy of owning of a dedicated cast iron or wooden tortilla press, we do love his helpful hack!

You can also use a rolling pin, but pressing the sopes with a book gives a quick, even result (pressing down with a plate is another option offered in his recipe).  

Luis Valenzuela

Born in Guadalajara and now living in Canada, Valenzuela says he learned to cook from his mother and grandmother, who taught him that “food is the soul of life”.

In The Latin Kitchen, he shares many memories of growing up in Mexico, from how his mother’s cooking was like an alarm clock in the morning (in a good way!), to a family cooking pot named after his grandfather.

It all starts with those sopes tapiatos, the very first recipe he cooks in the show.

Join Luis Valenzeula as he shares stories, memories and great recipes in The Latin Kitchen, now streaming on SBS On Demand.

Lead image of epazote by Omar Bárcena via flickr

More ways to use epazote
Rojo mole pork with pickled radishes

Pork is much-loved in Mexico and it really is the perfect protein to soak up all those spices, the rojo chocolate mole and the smoked creme. Take your time to turn around this Mexican beauty and you will be rewarded in richness. The Chefs' Line 

Nopale soup (sopa de nopal)

Chef Angel Vázquez of Intro restaurant in Puebla, Mexico, has composed this recipe for a multi-textured soup with crunchy cactus pieces, creamy avocado and an elegant poached quail egg in a spicy chipotle soup. Cojita is an aged hard cheese, very salty and firm – a good substitute is a well-aged parmesan or pecorino.

Pinto bean soup (sopa de frijol)

Beans are one of the staples of Mexican cuisine and they come in dozens of varieties. The simple recipe of cooking them gently with onion and an aromatic herb is perhaps the most common method of preparation for any and all beans in Mexico.