Spices of life

New Mex­ico's cui­sine goes be­yond "red or green"

Santa Fe New Mexican - Healthy Living - - INSIDE - By Pa­tri­cia West-Barker

The aro­matic herbs and spices that fla­vor New Mex­ico’s sig­na­ture dishes have been used through­out the Amer­i­cas for hun­dreds of years, lend­ing dis­tinc­tive tastes and aro­mas to a great va­ri­ety of cuisines and in the process con­fer­ring pow­er­ful health benefits.

Canela and All­spice

Rocky Durham, ex­ec­u­tive chef/co-founder of the Santa Fe Culi­nary Academy, lists canela and all­spice as star play­ers in her pantry of es­sen­tial South­west­ern spices. Canela is a va­ri­ety of cin­na­mon that Durham said is “softer in the nose and more akin to black pep­per than to pump­kin pie.”

All­spice, a berry that grows only in the West­ern Hemi­sphere, “is easy to overuse,” Durham says, “but just a hint of those Caribbean aro­mat­ics brings new di­men­sions to Yu­catan-in­spired cuisines.”

Health benefits

Tra­di­tion­ally used to re­lieve di­ges­tive dis­or­ders, cin­na­mon also may be use­ful in treat­ing high blood pres­sure and type 2 di­a­betes. All­spice has tra­di­tion­ally been used as a tea to aid di­ges­tion and as a poul­tice for sore mus­cles.


Kate Wheeler, a for­mer chef and owner/ op­er­a­tor of the Sa­vory Spice Shop in Santa Fe, be­lieves “gar­lic makes ev­ery­thing bet­ter, and it’s in­cred­i­bly easy to grow. It’s also known as a pow­er­ful aphro­disiac.” In an­cient Egypt, gar­lic was placed in the tombs of pharaohs as an of­fer­ing and fed to the slaves build­ing the tombs to in­crease en­durance.

Health benefits

Gar­lic has proven an­tiox­i­dant, an­tibac­te­rial, an­ti­fun­gal, an­tivi­ral and anti-in­flam­ma­tory prop­er­ties; it has been stud­ied as a rem­edy for ear­aches, skin in­fec­tion, chronic fa­tigue, high blood pres­sure and atheroscle­ro­sis.


“Cumin orig­i­nated in the Nile Val­ley of Egypt and is one of the old­est traded spices,” Wheeler says. “It brings on the earthy fla­vor and deep scent of chile pow­ders. The sweet aroma is what make red chile pork stew be­come carne adovada.”

Health benefits

His­tor­i­cally, cumin was used to treat di­ges­tive prob­lems. It’s a good source of man­ganese, cal­cium and mag­ne­sium, which is an es­sen­tial min­eral. Cumin is now be­ing stud­ied for its po­ten­tial to con­trol blood sugar.

Mex­i­can Oregano

Mediter­ranean and Mex­i­can oregano look alike, but they are two com­pletely dif­fer­ent species. The Mediter­ranean va­ri­ety is a mem­ber of the mint fam­ily, while Mex­i­can oregano is re­lated to lemon ver­bena and has mild cit­rus notes that com­ple­ment cumin and chiles.

Santa Fe na­tive Ni­cole Curtis Am­mer­man is direc­tor of the Santa Fe School of Cooking founded by her mother, Su­san Curtis. She says that Mex­i­can oregano, the only kind they use at the school, is “sweeter and milder than the Mediter­ranean va­ri­ety.”

Health benefits

Oregano has an­tibac­te­rial and an­tiox­i­dant prop­er­ties, has been used to treat re­s­pi­ra­tory and gas­troin­testi­nal prob­lems and is a tra­di­tional rem­edy for toothaches and gum dis­ease.

Cilantro/Co­rian­der Seed

Com­monly used in both Asian and Mex­i­can dishes, cilantro and co­rian­der come from the same plant. The leaves are the herb cilantro and the seeds are ground to make the spice co­rian­der.

Health benefits

Cilantro’s abil­ity to lower choles­terol and blood sugar has been con­firmed in an­i­mal stud­ies. Be­cause it can re­duce blood sugar, peo­ple who are tak­ing di­a­betes drugs or are sched­uled for surgery should use cilantro with cau­tion.


Epa­zote, also called worm­seed and Je­suit’s tea, is na­tive to Cen­tral and South Amer­ica and grows well in New Mex­ico. “It gives a slightly licorice fla­vor to pots of beans,” Wheeler says, “while re­duc­ing the risk of flat­u­lence.” Am­mer­man agrees, not­ing that the Santa Fe School of Cooking uses it less for fla­vor and more to make the beans more eas­ily di­gestible.

Health benefits

The herb’s ac­tive in­gre­di­ent is a nat­u­ral pes­ti­cide, which makes it a handy com­pan­ion plant in the gar­den.


Re­cent re­search in­di­cates that chile pep­pers have been cul­ti­vated in Mex­ico for at least 6,000 years. The first Euro­pean to en­counter chiles in the Caribbean was Christo­pher Colum­bus. Car­ried around the globe by Por­tuguese and Arab traders, chiles to­day are as im­por­tant to Southeast Asian cuisines as they are to those of the Amer­i­cas.

“There are thou­sands of dif­fer­ent kinds (of chiles),” Wheeler says. “All of them re­lease en­dor­phins and get us ad­dicted. You couldn’t have South­west­ern cui­sine with­out them!”

Health benefits

All pep­pers are a good source of B vi­ta­mins. They are high in potas­sium and mag­ne­sium and help the body ab­sorb nu­tri­ents from beans and grains eaten at the same meal. Red chile also con­tains large amounts of vi­ta­min C.

Cap­saicin, the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in chile pep­pers that gives them their heat, is con­sid­ered safe and ef­fec­tive when used in a top­i­cal cream to re­lieve the pain of arthri­tis, pso­ri­a­sis and shin­gles.


Santa Fe Culi­nary Academy

112 W. San Fran­cisco St., Suite 300, Santa Fe 505-983-7445 www.Santafe­culi­nary­a­cademy.com

Santa Fe School of Cooking

125 N. Guadalupe St., Santa Fe 505-983-4511 www.Santafeschoolof­cook­ing.com

Sa­vory Spice Shop Santa Fe

225 Gal­is­teo St., Santa Fe 505-819-5659 www.sa­voryspiceshop.com

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