Spicy is often the first word that comes to mind when describing Latin cuisine - though it’s worth noting it does not always translate to hot. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, dried herbs and seeds impart delicate nuances and depths of flavor to soups, stews, pastes and marinades. Traditional cooks instinctually add a little of this and that as they work, unsure of exact measurements but always confident of where they are heading. Here are a few key spices and herbs used for savory dishes that are good to have on hand when you start experimenting.
Annatto or Achiote
These burnt-orange seeds from the tropical bixa orellana bush add both color and earthy flavor to chicken, pork, and fish dishes. To make the annatto flavored cooking oil popular in the Caribbean, simply simmer the whole seeds in oil or lard until it is infused with color, then strain. The seeds can also be ground into a paste with other spices like cloves, cumin, allspice, oregano, coriander, and citrus juices to make the recado rojo famously used in Yucatecen pibil dishes among others.
Bay Leaves or Hoja de Laurel
Bay leaves hold their ground in the spice rack, imparting bright floral notes to hearty soups and stews. California varieties are stronger, but Turkish bay leaves are prized for their subtlety. Though pretty enough when floating in a simmering pot of beans, they can cause digestive problems if consumed. For added flavor, roughly crush the leaves then wrap them up in muslin or cheese cloth for easy removal before serving.
Next, three more spices essential to any Latin meal...