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Spice Descriptions and Uses

Epazote or Mexican Tea Chenopodium ambrosiodes

The name epazote comes from the Nahuatl words "eptl" and tzotl," which mean an animal with a rank odor. (Nahuatl is spoken by indigenous peoples in central Mexico.) As you might imagine epazote is noted for its strong smell. Some people think it smells like turpentine.

Epazote can be either an annual or a perennial herbaceous plant depending on the conditions under which it is growing. It produces large clusters of small, yellowish-green flowers, which are intermixed with the leaves. The seeds are small and brownish-black. Its leaves have visible oil glands.

Uses

You might think a plant named after a rank smelling animal would be pretty useless and disgusting, but it's not. Epazote is used as both a food and a medicine.

Epazote leaves frequently are used to flavor Mexican corn, mushroom, fish, soup, sauces, shellfish, snail, and bean and rice dishes, or they can be dried and crushed for a condiment. They have a strong taste though, so most people use only small amounts. Epazote provides an extra benefit -- it is thought to help digestion by stopping gas from forming.

Epazote is believed to have other medicinal uses as well. Some people use the leaves to make tea to help an upset stomach. Others use epazote to make a muscle relaxing medicine to help with coughs and asthma. In the past the leaves were distilled for their essential oils. These oils were used for removing roundworms, hookworms, dwarf tapeworms, and intestinal amoebae from the digestive system. Today a man-made substitute has replaced epazote oil.

History and Lore

Epazote (chenopodium ambrosioides) was brought to Europe in the 17th century from Mexico and used in various traditional medicines. The herb was used by the Aztecs as a medicine as well as a culinary herb.

Interesting Facts

People have been using epazote as a medicine for centuries. Both the Mayans and the European settlers in the eastern U.S. used it to treat intestinal worms. The Catawaba, a Native American people from North and South Carolina, used it to treat snake bites and other types of poisonings.

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