Every cuisine has its little secrets, those ingredients that, while not essential, nudge a dish closer to its essence. For Mexican cooking, epazote is one of those special flavours.
Epazote is more subtle and less available than cilantro (coriander leaf), another herb common in Mexican cooking, with which it is often compared.
If I had to describe cilantro as a person, she would be a slight, very pretty Latina with black hair and just a whiff of exotic perfume. Epazote would be the tough leathery guy who has been a little too long in the saddle and is just behind her in the doorway watching your every move.
Epazote is common to a lot of southern Mexican cooking. It is essential in black bean dishes where it gives the dish a fuller taste and seems to help the flavours blend together. Its own taste is somewhat muted. Not quite parsley, not quite cilantro, epazote has a dustier edge. It can be quite strong smelling on its own and not at all agreeable. It is not particularly good chopped fresh and sprinkled on top of dishes, like these other two herbs. Rather, this is an herb with a flavour that works best in the cooking. Add it to soups and stews and cooked sauces.
Epazote looks like a large parsley leaf, with jagged edges. It grows as tall as a meter and looks like a weed. Some of its other names are pigweed, goosefoot, wormtea and Mexican tea. The latter two indicate this plant's medicinal functions. Epazote is cited as a good anti-flatulent (hence its use in bean dishes) as well as a remedy for intestinal parasites.
While epazote can easily be grown here, it has only been available fresh fairly recently. It is worth looking for if you are at the Jean Talon or Atwater market and see stands where fresh herbs are sold. Latino markets may sell fresh epazote and often have it dried. Two good sources are Super Marche Andes at 4387 St-Laurent (848-1078) and Casa Latina 4551 St. Laurent (845-5645). If you buy dried epazote, make sure you get the leaves. The stems are also sold but they are used primarily as a tea and are not as good for cooking. A teaspoon of crumbled epazote is equal to a half dozen leaves from the plant.