Mexican cooking draws its influences from Native Mesoamerican and Spanish culinary traditions. It is a truly colonial cuisine that emerged from the Spaniards’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was the Spaniards who introduced chicken into the Native Mesoamerican diet. Before their arrival, the Aztecs ate mostly grain and vegetables with animal proteins coming from deer and other game as well as from fish. The modern Mexican methods of cooking chicken involve a mix of local herb and spices as well as those that arrived via colonialism. The best Mexican spices for chicken include:
As the quintessential Latin American spice, cumin can be found in many if not most Mexican dishes. Cumin is used in recipes for almost all Mexican meat dishes including tacos and those containing poultry like chicken. Its earthy bitterness and nuttiness can help to enhance chicken’s mild flavor. It also works well with all of the other Mexican chicken seasonings.
A relative of lemon verbena, Mexican oregano has a pungent flavor with hints of citrus. Its flavor is quite different from that of its Mediterranean namesake so think carefully before making a substitution. Mediterranean oregano wouldn’t be the worst substitute but it might not be the best for chicken. Mexican oregano is one of the ingredients in traditional chicken moles.
Of course, onion is not unique to Mexican cuisine since it is used in most food cultures around the world. In almost every country it shows up in dishes that feature animal proteins and is essential for traditional Mexican chicken dishes like tinga de pollo (chicken tinga) and chicken quesadillas.
The sulfurous, savory qualities of garlic are about as universal as those of onions. Like an onion, garlic is an Allium. It goes well with all animal proteins and can be used to give chicken a richer, deeper umami flavor. Garlic shows up in the aforementioned tinga de pollo as well as pollo asada, two classic Mexican chicken recipes.
Also known as annatto seeds, achiote refers to the scarlet-orange spice made from the ground seeds of the annatto fruit. The seeds have a very mild flavor and used mostly for coloring. Both properties can be beneficial on chicken, which doesn’t have much of a flavor and can be unpleasantly pale.
Chili peppers are staple ingredients in most Mexican chicken dishes because they are staples in most Mexican dishes, period. The heat and flavor that they bring complements both vegetables and animal proteins and is indispensable for moles and other dishes where chicken is sometimes the star of the show. In Mexican cuisine, hot peppers are used in many different forms including dried and powdered or in sauces. You can pair all of the different forms with chicken.
The guajillo pepper is known for its sweet and tangy flavor, which makes it ideal for lighter proteins like chicken and seafood. The guajillo name is given to dried mirasol chilies. It means gourd and comes from the fact that the seeds rattle around inside the fruit as they do in gourds.
The small, bright red chile de arbol peppers are iconic in Mexican cuisine and can be used in any dish that can do with a little extra heat. Chile de arbol chilies also retain their bright color when dried so they are important for the appearance of a dish as well.