A herb with a lemon tone and an odour of old socks – not overly attractive to the European palate but an essential ingredient of Mexican cooking.
Epazote plants in flower
Ripening epazote fruits
The plant is indigenous to Central and Southern Mexico, but today is commonly found in Europe and the US.
Leaves, flowers and unripe fruits, with the latter having the strongest flavour. All of these are best used fresh, but the dried herb is also common and has a satisfactory aroma. The seeds contain the most essential oil.
Amaranthaceae (amaranth family).
Epazote's fragrance is strong and unique, variously described by users as "citrusy", "petroleum-like", "savoury", "minty" or "putty-like". There are different chemotypes some of which posses a refreshing citrus odour similar to that of lemon myrtle.
The English name "goose-foot" is a translation of the scientific genus name chenopodium (Greek chēn "goose" and pous "foot" motivated by the three-lobed leaf shape characteristic of several plants of the group. Mexican origin or association with missionary orders gave rise to several names in other languages, e.g. Spanish té de los Jesuitas. The species name ambrosioides "ambrosia-like" probably refers to the strong odour. Ambrosia is, according to Greek mythology, was a nourishment reserved for the Olympic gods.
A closely related variety var. anthelminticum is cultivated in the Southern States of the US for its potency against intestinal worms and this leads to the name wormseed for the plant. In order to prevent confusion, the culinary variety var. ambrosioides is usually called "epazote" in English. This name is taken from Náhuatl (the original Aztec tongue) and is due to the potent smell of the herb, which many find disagreeable (epatl "skunk" and tzotl "sweat" or "dirt". A rather different attitude towards epazote's aroma is made clear by the Scandinavian names Finnish saitruunasavikka, Swedish citronmålla and Norwegian sitronmelde, which contain the name of lemon as the first element.
In many languages epazote is termed "tea", referring to the use as a substitute for true tea in preparing aromatic infusions, e.g. German Jesuitentee "Jesuit's tea", Catalan te fals "false tea" and several names meaning "tea of Mexico" (French thé du Mexique, Turkish Meksika çayı).
Epazote's strong taste is characteristic of the Mayan cuisine of Southern Mexico and Guatemala. The epicentre of epazote usage is the Yucatan peninsula.
The herb is used fresh in soups, salads and meat dishes and appears in the recipe for mole verde, a Mexican herb sauce. The most common usage is in bean dishes, where the strong antiflatulent powers of epazote are an additional motivation for its use. The most commonly epazote flavoured food is the Mexican refried bean dish frijoles refritos, in which the beans are first cooked in water with epazote and other spices (garlic, onion, cumin, dried Mexican chilli or paprika) and when softened fried with additional epazote and other spices in pig lard until they become a smooth puree. Refried beans are often served in TexMex-style restaurants, but in restaurants outside of Mexico and the Southern US this dish is rarely prepared in the traditional way and hardly ever contains epazote.
The dried herb is considered inferior to the fresh one, but outside of Central America and the Southern US fresh epazote is often hard to find. Common substitutes are coriander or long coriander leaves, but the taste of epazote is imitated more successfully by a mixture of savory, oregano and boldo leaves.