Herbs are an easy and highly personal way to add textures and aromatic flavors to a dish. But whether they’re as popular as chives or as divisive as cilantro, few can claim to be as unique and intensely flavorful as epazote.
Even if you’ve never heard of this pungent plant, there’s a good chance it lurks in the background of some of your favorite Mexican dishes, particularly those from the country’s southern states. You’ll also find epazote in Central American cuisines, on Latin American food blogs, and, as it becomes more well-known, perhaps in the produce aisle of your local grocery store. Needless to say, there’s a lot to know about it.
So what is epazote?
Epazote is a leafy herb that can grow as either an annual or a short-lived perennial plant, depending on its surrounding environment.
“It looks like an elongated basil leaf, with a hint of arugula in there,” says Edgar Castrejón, a food photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of Provecho, a cookbook of plant-based Mexican recipes.
Castrejón is referring to the jagged edges of the epazote leaf, which appear similar to most of the salad arugula found in local grocery stores. The leaves can vary in size, ranging from 3 to 6 inches in length and 1 to 3 inches in width, while the plant can grow up to four feet. Both leaf and stem are edible and come in shades of dark green or purple.
In colder climates, the epazote plant will grow as an annual, meaning it blooms small green flowers before dying off and restarting its life cycle. In warmer climates, epazote grows as a short-lived perennial that can tolerate mild frost and dips in temperature.
What does epazote taste like?
“Epazote is not as popular [as other herbs] because it definitely has a flavor that not everyone will be used to,” says Bricia Lopez, co-owner of the Los Angeles restaurant Guelaguetza and the co-author of Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. “Its flavor is a hybrid between basil and mint, but very floral at the same time. You add it to Mexican dishes that need that extra herbal or floral note.”
Epazote’s bold flavors and aroma can be overwhelming to first-timers. In fact, the word epazote originates from the Nahuatl words epatli and zotli, which together form the phrase “skunk herb.” In Mexico and Guatemala, two countries where epazote is frequently consumed, the plant is sometimes called hierba hedionda (aka “stinky weed”), while it’s also referred to as goosefoot and skunk weed in English.
The herb’s flavor varies depending on growing conditions and time of year, but it’s been known to carry notes of citrus, anise, oregano, and pine when incorporated into dishes. When it’s consumed raw, epazote can have an almost medicinal quality due to its anise, licorice-like flavors; some even say it tastes like petroleum or putty.
“Some people say it tastes different depending on how you use it,” Castrejón adds. “To me, it’s very minty or oregano-like. Some say citrusy, but I say it’s more so citric acid. It has a few notes of thyme, too.”
Although epazote will not be everyone’s cup of tea, it undoubtedly adds a one-of-a-kind quality to dishes. Epazote’s unique flavor “can be used to describe much of Mexican cuisine,” says Celia Florián, a Oaxacan chef and co-owner of Las Quince Letras in Oaxaca City. “It has an intense aroma, and many Mexican, especially Oaxacan, dishes wouldn’t be the same without this key flavor.”
Where did epazote originate?
Epazote is native to southern Mexico and Central America and is used daily in places like Oaxaca, Yucatán, and Guatemala. The herb was originally incorporated into the diet of the Mayan and Aztec people but has since spread to various parts of the Americas. It now grows as an invasive species in South America, as well as the southwestern United States. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas, the colonists brought the herb back to Europe, where it eventually spread as far as Tibet and India.
The Indigenous communities of pre-Hispanic America used epazote for its medicinal properties as well, which explains its two other English-language nicknames: wormseed and Mexican tea. The Mayans and Aztecs began brewing tea from epazote leaves to treat intestinal parasites, particularly hookworms.
“When I was a child, my grandmother would periodically give me epazote tea, roughly every six months, because she said it was a way to naturally get rid of intestinal parasites,” says Florían. “My grandmother would say it works because the parasites couldn’t tolerate the smell of epazote.”
Nowadays, epazote is commonly believed to be a natural treatment for digestive issues, like flatulence, and comes in handy if it’s incorporated into high-fiber foods like beans. However, it should be noted that epazote contains chenopodium, which can be toxic to both animals and humans if consumed in large quantities. Culinary uses of epazote are considered to be very safe (particularly since using too much of the herb will overpower the dish and render it inedible). There is usually more concern surrounding epazote oils and measuring proper dosages.
“I think many of the herbs we have in Mesoamerica come from our ancestors,” says Florían. “They are herbs our ancestors would use in their rudimentary cooking practices and flavor their dishes. I see all of this as an inheritance from our pre-Hispanic roots.”
Which cuisines use epazote?
Southern Mexican and Central American cuisines are where epazote shines the brightest.
“Oaxacan heritage has an abundance of herbs and chiles, many of which are unique to that region and not always available elsewhere,” says Lopez. “Epazote, like fresh oregano, poleo, and hierba santa, is one of these ingredients that are really endemic to Oaxaca.”
But since ancient times, epazote has grown in other regions of Mexico; it’s commonly found inside quesadillas from Mexico City street vendors and in the green pumpkin seed moles of Puebla in central Mexico. Papadzules, a rolled corn tortilla dish from Yucatán, also gets dressed in the green pepita mole whose herbaceous kick comes from epazote. And then there’s pulique, a Guatemalan stew with Mayan origins that starts with sauteing meat in a tomato, tomatillo, and epazote sauce.
“Oaxacan cuisines are extremely herbal,” says Florían. “I say ‘cuisines,’ plural, because we have seven distinct regions in Oaxaca, each with its own food heritage and preferred herbs. But all Oaxacan cooking wouldn’t taste distinctly Oaxacan without epazote. A tortilla soup, some chilaquiles de guajillo, or a salsa de queso wouldn’t taste the same without epazote. It’s singular and impossible to match.”
How can I use epazote in my kitchen?
You can eat both the stem and the leaves, but be warned that the stems are notoriously pungent in flavor. Because they can quickly turn bitter or potentially run the risk of overpowering a dish, they are often discarded right before serving and replaced with the milder leaves. Feel free to use epazote stems to infuse dishes like stews or broths, but remember this crucial step.
Like many fresh herbs, epazote loses most of its flavor when it’s cooked down for extended periods, which is why it’s often thrown in at the very end of a recipe. For example, when making stewed beans, many Mexican home cooks will add whole stems of epazote in the last few minutes of the cooking process and cover the pot with a lid. This allows both the leaves and stems to gently infuse the beans before being removed. The same method can be used when making salsas or soups that call for an essence of epazote, but not the herb itself.
Epazote leaves are known to be more delicate in both texture and flavor than the stems; the specific dish will dictate which part of the herb is used. Foods that are individually portioned or more simple in flavor, like quesadillas, usually call for just the leaves because they don’t need a strong kick of epazote and the leaves can be easily chewed. However, more complex or shareable dishes, like stews or pots of beans, can take on the flavors from epazote stems.
Similar to sage, epazote leaves can be fried and placed on top of meats, cheeses, and salads for additional texture. Raw epazote stems can be finely minced and used as garnish, but in moderation since their taste can easily overpower a dish.
Where can I find epazote?
You can find epazote in Latin American or Caribbean grocers, as well as major supermarkets in cities with large Latin American communities.
Are there any substitutes if I can’t find it?
While you can realistically combine various fresh herbs to achieve a similar experience, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to perfectly replicate what epazote brings to a dish.
“Different herbs can work as a substitute, like hierba santa, but it’s still a very Mexican herb that might not be readily available everywhere,” says Florían. “You can use cilantro, but it won’t be the same. Chilaquiles with cilantro will be delicious but not the same without epazote.”
However, many of the words used to describe epazote’s tasting notes exist in other herbs, so with a little ingenuity, you might get close. “You’d need to mix mint, basil, and some oregano together, but it’s hard because epazote has such a distinctive taste,” Lopez says.
Can I grow epazote myself?
The short answer is: Yes!
“People don’t know how easily epazote grows. I’ve seen people grow it here in LA, and you can find the plants in local nurseries. I have the plants growing in my house, too,” says Lopez. “But I’ll be honest, I don’t really have much time to take care of my garden, and it does great on its own.”
As Castrejón likes to say of the leafy herb, “it grows like a weed.” That’s why containers are strongly recommended if you’re planting epazote in your home garden, or else the epazote might quickly take over the surrounding area. The plant fares best in warm, dry weather and requires a medium amount of water, but is relatively drought-resistant. If your epazote plant grows as an annual, let the flowering branches grow to seed and collect the seeds to sow the following season. Seeds are also available online if you can’t find any in your local nurseries.
Can you dry epazote? Does it make a difference?
Yes, and yes. Epazote can be dried just like any other herb; this is a common practice to help preserve it for when it’s out of season. But similar to fresh oregano and dried oregano, the two different forms each provide a different aromatic experience.
“I dry my epazote because I can’t keep it fresh, but I want to use it all year long,” says Castrejón. “I’ve found that dried epazote is not as tangy and lacks the same pungency as fresh leaves. But it’s still very aromatic and smells like dried oregano with a mintier taste.”
Although it’s not as intensely flavorful, dried epazote can be mixed into dry rubs for meats or grilled fish, or used to add an extra something to a fragrant tomato sauce. Consider it an alternative to standard dried oregano, but with a bolder, more floral kick.
Is epazote still relatively unknown outside of its places of origin?
Like with other lesser-known ingredients, epazote’s recent increase in exposure can be credited to the power of the Internet.
“I believe it’s gotten more popular, but it’s still up-and-coming,” says Castrejón. “It’s a great herb to use, and I can see it gaining popularity, especially when I see restaurants, including high-end Mexican restaurants in cities like LA, use epazote. It’s on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, and although I mostly see other Latinx people using epazote, others are discovering it, too.”
If you’re interested in expanding your herb repertoire with the flavorful, sometimes divisive, yet one-of-a-kind epazote, check out some of these recipes.
Pati Jinich’s Oaxacan-Style Mushroom Quesadillas
Jocelyn Ramirez’s Mole Verde
Diana Kennedy’s Papadzules
Barbara Hansen’s Pulique
Sonia Mendez Garcia’s Tortilla Soup
Lupe Romera Vidal’s Fried Ricotta with Epazote and Green Chile
Rick Martinez’s Frijoles de la Olla
Mely Martínez’s Caldo Tlalpeño
Edgar Castrejón’s Frijoles Rojos