Epazote: A Pungent Herb From Yucatan

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Epazote is a Central American herb that has a history of use dating back thousands of years to the Aztecs and the Mayans. They used it both for its medicinal value and as a culinary herb. The main use of the herb by both these civilizations was medicinal.

Among the different names for this herb are payqu and skunkweed. The epazote name comes from two Aztec words that translate to skunk and another word that can mean excrement or sweat. The name comes from the fact that the herb is highly aromatic. The name of its species is Dysphania ambrosioides. The ambrosioides comes from ambrosia, the food of the mythical Greek gods. This name was likely given because of the smell.

Epazote would be transported from Mexico to Spain in the 16th century and would thrive there. From Spain, it would spread around the world. It has been found as far afield as Tibet and India. A variety of it called wormseed grows all over the US as a weed. Wormseed is viewed as an invasive plant. It should be noted that the wormseed variety is different from the culinary variety.

In the early 20th century, the oil extracted from epazote (the wormseed variety) was bottled and sold as a treatment for intestinal worms.

Today, you can find epazote in many Latin grocery stores in the US. It is not used much outside of Mexico, despite the fact that it can be found all over the world.

Epazote flavor profile

Epazote has a pungent licorice-like flavor note that is sometimes compared to that of tarragon and fennel; however, it is much stronger than those two herbs. Along with the licorice note, there are faint undertones of lemon. Other herbs to which it is sometimes compared include mint and savory. When used medicinally, an infusion may be made with it that can be extremely bitter. The flavor and aroma of epazote are much milder in the dried herb than in the fresh.

Health benefits of epazote

Among the compounds that make epazote beneficial for health are:

  • Vitamins: Epazote contains vitamin A and vitamin B9, also known as folate.
  • Minerals: Epazote contains several minerals, including significant amounts of potassium and calcium along with modest amounts of magnesium and phosphorus.

Epazote is effective for treating or preventing health conditions like:

  • Digestive problems: Epazote is a carminative, which means that it helps to mitigate flatulence and other digestive issues that can come from eating beans.
  • Fevers: Small doses of epazote tea are used in folk medicine to reduce fevers.
  • Osteoporosis: The high level of calcium in epazote makes it beneficial for maintaining bone density. It can be used to strengthen bones and stave off the effects of osteoporosis.
  • Intestinal worms: The wormseed variety of epazote is so named because it can be used to treat intestinal parasites; specifically, hookworm.

Note: Epazote contains chenopodium, a toxic substance. As a result, it should be used only in small amounts.

Common uses

Epazote shows up mostly in Mayan cuisine from Yucatan. It is commonly used as a seasoning for black beans or mixed with a paste made from pumpkin seeds to make papadzules. The herb is also sometimes used in quesadillas as well as in enchiladas and some soups. Other epazote applications include alcoholic beverages such as bitters. In Spain, epazote is added to some teas.