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5 Essential Savory Spices for the Latin Kitchen

Cumin or Comino

With roots stretching back to antiquity, including a biblical reference or two, cumin is an essential add-in for sautés, stews, and roasts. Warm and pungent with a peppery finish, it should be used sparingly to not over power the dish. For the freshest results, the golden brown seeds should be purchased whole then ground or mashed in a mortar and pestle as needed. Caraway seeds, similarly related to the parsley family, can be substituted but the amounts will vary.

Mexican Oregano or Orégano Mexicano

Mexican oregano’s high oil content gives it a special potency that pairs well with cumin. When added at the beginning of a slow simmer, the flavors have a chance to fully develop. Sold in small bags of tiny whole leaves still on the branch, it’s easily spotted in the Latin American and Mexican ingredient sections of larger chain grocery stores. Not only is Mexican oregano stronger than the Mediterranean oregano commonly available, it's a different plant altogether.

Smoked Paprika or Pimentón

Though pimentón is closely associated with Spanish cuisine - think spice filled chorizo, golden paella, and speckled patatas bravas - the origins of this smoky red spice can be traced back to the peppers Columbus first brought back from New World. Principally grown in the Extramadura region of Spain, the red chili peppers are harvested in the fall, dried over oak wood, then ground to a fine powder.  Available in dulce (sweet), agridulce (bittersweet), and picante (hot), it’s still part of a shared culinary heritage, adding a jolt to Chilean porotos granados or color to Peruvian pollo a la brasa.

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