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Epazote is an herb native to Southern Mexico and Central and South America. It is also grown in warm, temperate areas of North America and Europe, where it sometimes becomes an invasive species. Epazote is used in the kitchen as a leafy vegetable and an herb and is valued for certain medicinal properties. The plant is often served along with beans, as it prevents flatulence.
Epazote grows as either an annual or a short-lived perennial. It features oblong leaves and tiny, green flowers that may develop into small fruits, all of which are edible. Epazote flowers may become a deep, bright purple if exposed to adequate light. Fresh epazote is preferred for cooking, but dried epazote may be used as a substitute.
Raw epazote has a strong smell which has variously been compared to mint, lemon, petroleum, and savory. The name epazote derives from the Nahuatl for "skunk sweat." Other names for the herb, however, imply a pleasant scent; Scandinavian terms incorporate the word for "lemon," and the herb's Latin name is Chenopodium ambrosioides, referencing ambrosia, the food of the gods in Greek mythology. The raw plant also has a strong taste, somewhat similar to anise or fennel, though stronger.
Though epazote is most commonly served with black beans, it is a versatile ingredient. It is widely used in Southern Mexican and Guatemalan cuisine. Epazote is an important ingredient in mole verde, for example.
Epazote has a wide range of alleged medicinal properties. It may be eaten raw or used as a tea to treat digestive complaints, menstrual irregularities, congested sinuses, malaria, hysteria, and asthma. Essential oil derived from the herb is said to be antispasmodic and abortifacent, as well as to kill intestinal worms. It has been used in this last capacity to treat both humans and animals, but can be toxic in excessive doses. One of the plant's alternative names, wormseed, references this property.