First, the seeds were needed. Then the pungent herb had to be protected from the unlikeliest attackers.
My grandmother was a smuggler … of sorts.
Wherever she traveled in the world, she would go prepared with a bag of chiles verdes, carefully hidden among the bras and panties in her suitcase. At each meal, she would pull out a chile verde (Serrano) from her purse to accompany the sushi she ate in Tokyo or the tapas in Madrid or the bouillabaisse in Paris.
But when she came to visit us in suburban Orange County, she took her smuggling to a new level.
It was all due to my parents’ inability to find or grow a popular Mexican herb called epazote. Suburban Orange County in the early 1980s was a culinary wasteland. In those days, you could find Serrano peppers or cilantro only in Mexican markets in Santa Ana. It is still quite hard to find—even in LA.
Epazote is an herb used by the Aztecs for medicinal purposes, for tea and also for cooking. It is said to rid one of intestinal parasites and to help reduce gas. Mexicans love its pungent, acrid flavor in many dishes including quesadillas and black beans.
Epazote grows wild and is often mistaken for a garden weed or marijuana by those unfamiliar with it.
One day, my parents commented to my grandmother how they missed the unique taste and texture epazote gave their quesadillas. So, when my grandmother arrived for a visit, fresh off the plane, she handed my dad a pouch with seeds.
“All you need to do is plant it and you will have your epazote, m’hijo,” she said with a smile.
She had snuck the seeds into the country in her large, corpulent bosom.
“Nobody was going to search in there, m’hijito,” she said.
After the shock wore off, my parents happily planted the seeds. They watered them, bathed them in sunlight, cared for them as if they were fragile little babies. Finally, after a few weeks, familiar long, green leaves sprouted out of the dirt. The plant grew and grew until it was large enough to pick. That little bite of epazote did much to soothe the pain of homesickness.
“I recovered my identity,” said my dad, recalling that first bite of quesadilla with his homegrown epazote.
“It was, ¡qué delicia! We were able to eat what we love again,” said my mother.
But one day, the Japanese gardener, Moshi, knocked on the door.
“Mrs. Muñoz, you have marijuana growing here.”
My mother had never even smoked marijuana so she was confused. Moshi walked her over to the plant and pointed at it.
My mother laughed, “Oh, no, Moshi, this is epazote.” She pulled a leaf and gave it to Moshi to taste. “It’s a Mexican herb.”
He shook his head.
My mother could not convince Moshi that it was not, in fact, marijuana. She even dared him to smoke it, but he left in a huff—probably thinking that this seemingly nice Mexican family was actually a front for a larger smuggling operation for Pablo Escobar.
And then one day, my mother walked to the backyard to pick some epazote.
It was gone.
She searched all over the garden. She frantically called my dad.
“The epazote is gone!”
“What do you mean it’s gone?”
“I mean it’s gone!”
When Moshi came back to tend to the garden, my mother confronted him (very gently because, according to my mother, he was a very, very good gardener).
He stared at my mother and pointed his finger at her as if she was a naughty schoolgirl.
“Mrs. Muñoz, I cannot let you get in trouble. Marijuana is illegal, you know. You cannot have it in your yard.”
And so years passed without their beloved epazote.
One day, as I walked to school through a neighbor’s yard, I noticed a large fluff of weeds in the corner that looked suspiciously like epazote. I picked a few leaves and brought them to my mother. ¡Lotería! Our neighbor could not believe we actually wanted something that grew like a weed and, to her, smelled like dirty socks.
My mother nurtured that plant and for the rest of our time in Orange County, they had a bounty of epazote. When they moved to Los Angeles, they tried to plant more seeds and for years, nothing sprouted. Finally, one took hold, beneath the front steps of their house—until another gardener whacked it. (This was really offensive because the gardener was Mexican.)
Miraculously, last year, a little epazote sprout came out of the earth.
My parents have taken all the precautions necessary. The gardener knows not to touch it. Lest he forget, a sign reminds everyone not to mess with the epazote.
Want to know where to buy epazote, check out Zester Daily’s A Quest for Epazote.
Photo credit: Lorenza Munoz
Craving the Pungent Mexican Herb, She Goes Looking at a Farmers Market Near L.A.
My search for epazote, the ancient Mexican herb, begins at the Santa Monica Farmers Market with my friends Antonio and Reyes Rodriguez of Valdivia Farms.
Their stand has been a reliable place in providing large, beautiful bouquets of deep green epazote, an herb that is usually hard to find if you don’t grow it yourself or live near a Vallarta or a Top Value market. Epazote has not yet acquired the status of basil or rosemary as being essential in every cook’s kitchen. Perhaps it is too much of an acquired taste. According to the web encyclopedia Practically Edible, epazote comes from the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl. “Epatl” means “skunk” and “tzotl,” means “sweat.” As you can guess by this name, it has a very pungent taste and smell.
But if any herb brings me back to Mexico, it is epazote, with its singular taste—tangy, rich, complex. As with any herb or ingredient, epazote should bring layers of complexity to a dish—not overpower it. Today, I have a hankering for quesadillas with queso cotija, queso Oaxaca, a Serrano chile and two leaves of epazote. So off I go to the farmers market near Los Angeles to try to find some.
The Rodriguez brothers, however, cannot help me. Too few customers want epazote, they say.
“It’s not a good business,” Reyes says. “Most Americans don’t even know what it is.”
Listening to our conversation as she picks out some meaty heirloom tomatoes is customer Dina Bojorquez, originally from Guatemala. She loves epazote, especially with black beans, but also in a tea. It helps with cramps, she says.
“It must taste really strong to drink it in a tea,” I say.
“Oh, yeah,” she laughs. “Nobody likes it, but with a little honey it goes down well.”
Next, I’m off to herbalist Cheryl Gaines, whose stand, It Began in the Garden, is a happy mélange and reflection of her wide customer base. Her items range from herbs de Provence to jalapeño jellies to Aztec Sweet Herb. She says she loves epazote, especially when its leaves are young.
“I throw it in my salad,” she says.
Gaines began her business a decade ago with eight herbs. Today she sells 160 varieties. She shows me to the Aztec Sweet Herb and estevia—natural sweeteners whose leaves literally coat your mouth in a sugary sweetness. She walks me over to her Ruta (Rue), a plant that her Hispanic friends tell her wards off evil spirits if you plant it next to your kitchen door.
“I don’t know if it’s true, but my ex-husband doesn’t come around anymore, so I am happy,” she says with a smile.
But, alas, she didn’t bring any epazote today.
She says to come back next week.
Next, I wander to Doña Sotera Jaime of Jaime Farms. Now Doña Sotera is originally from Cuernavaca, Morelos, in central Mexico and the region dominated by the Aztecs before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Doña knows her Mexican cooking, herbs and spices. During the winter she carries verdolagas (varies in color but the green plant is similar to the family of kale, spinach and mustard greens), huazontles (indigenous green herb in the epazote family) and even—ROMERITOS! The authority in Mexican food, Diana Kennedy, describes romeritos as “acidy little greens” traditionally made in a mole with shrimp fritters served for Christmas dinner.)
All of those plants are nearly impossible to find in the United States.
But even here, I strike out in my search for epazote.
“I didn’t bring any today,” she laments as she greets her usual customers while weighing a stem of broccoli on the scale. “But when I do have it, I get people who ask me what it is. I tell them they can use it to flavor black beans, chilaquiles, sopa de tortilla, menudo, sopa de papa. Once they use it, they love it.”
Come back next week, she promises.
I make my way to Jimmy Williams of HayGround organic gardening. The hugely popular Jimmy has a beautiful collection of fruit trees, pepper trees, herbs and vegetable plants—anything you want available year round.
Jimmy goes on and on about epazote and how much he loves it. How it kills parasites, cures gas, flavors food and served as a food preservative in the days before refrigeration. He boasts that he grows it year round in his Silver Lake garden because it never gets cold enough to kill it. (For most of us, epazote is a seasonal plant that grows in the spring through the summer and then dies around January. But its seeds repopulate quickly.)
He also maintains he sells a lot of epazote—with a caveat.
“With many of my customers, I go through the big pitch” to persuade them to try these mysterious herbs, he says with a laugh. “I learned what I know from old Mexican ladies.”
But Jimmy too lets me down. No epazote today.
“Come back”—he starts.
“I know, come back next week,” I grumble.
There is one more chance. Coleman Family Farms always has epazote.
Bill Coleman, a sixth-generation Californio whose family originally came from Colima, Mexico, is chewing on a flower stem of bok choy as if it’s a toothpick. He grew up on epazote. His grandmother used to give it to him to ward off intestinal parasites. He says he loves it in caldo rojo or quesadillas.
Ten years ago, few people asked for the stuff at the farmers markets. Today, he claims, “Everybody uses it. The gringos too.”
“So, can I buy some?” I ask.
“Nope,” he shrugs. “I sold out of the 50 bunches I brought. Try next week.”
I guess I won’t have my quesadillas today.
For advice on growing your own epazote, see Zester Daily’s Can’t Find It? Grow It.