Five Herb Amigos
Make sure your herb garden includes this convivial band of herbs, so frequently used to complement Mexican ingredients like chillies, garlic and limes
Mexican food is a rich, colourful mix of flavour and texture, born of the indigenous Aztec peoples, but much influenced by the Spanish, French and Americans who came later. While we can’t grow truly Mexican herbs and spices in South Africa, we can use many of our herbs to get that inspired flavour into our food.
Whether you know it as cilantro, dahnia or Chinese parsley, coriander is commonly used by cooks across continents and regions. Every part of this short-lived annual herb is used; its leaves, the seeds (dried) and its roots. The seeds can be used whole or ground for use in confectionery, bread, salads and pickles.
- Full sun, lots of water and soil that drains well are essential.
- Sow in spring or autumn, otherwise it will go to seed too quickly.
- It grows well with potatoes and anise, but not with fennel.
- It grows to a height of 50cm and spread of 30cm.
It’s a perfect accompaniment to Mexican chillies like serranos and jalapenos, tempering their heat, and is often teamed with limes. It’s also used as a garnish in tortillas, soups and stews, and of course it’s a salsa must!
Thyme is one of the easiest herbs to grow and is also an excellent groundcover for sunny, drought-tolerant gardens. There are many varieties available, but the best culinary ones are common thyme and lemon thyme.
- Plant thyme in full sun or light shade in well draining soil.
- Thyme also does well in pots, so mix different kinds together in a wide-mouthed, shallow container to create a miniature, fragrant thyme garden.
- The plants can be divided to get more stock, or bought in seedling form. You can also grow thyme from seed.
- It is frost hardy, and the creeping varieties are often used as a groundcover.
- Constant picking will keep it in shape and drenching it with a liquid fertiliser once or twice a month in the growing season is a good idea if you are harvesting constantly.
Often used in soups and sauces, thyme’s pungent flavour complements the heat of many Mexican dishes. It is included in many marinades and pickled chilli recipes.
Mint varieties are a dime a dozen, but the best one to grow for Mexican fare is the common garden mint.
- Most mint varieties are quite invasive, so keep them under control by planting them in pots. You can also sink them – pot and all – into a garden bed if you want to use them as a groundcover. Plant mint close to a tap; it loves the heavy and moist soil generally found there.
- Divide the plants occasionally to increase your stock.
Mint is used in Mexican meat dishes like meatballs. And what would a mojito be without mint?
This sun-loving herb has a distinctive aromatic flavour. It is one of the main ingredients of the Latin bouquet garni, along with thyme and marjoram. It thrives in hot, dry conditions
- This no-nonsense herb has a compact but creeping growth habit, and likes well-draining soil and regular watering.
- It can be grown from cuttings rooted in spring, or sown from seed.
- For best growth it should be fed every month with a liquid fertiliser.
- It only needs to be watered once a week and in cooler, wetter areas the flavour is milder.
- Harvest or pinch back the leaves regularly to prevent woody growth.
- Being frost hardy it remains green throughout winter.
Oregano is used in conjunction with thyme, cumin and chillies in many Mexican meat dishes, enchiladas, cheese and egg dishes, as well as in sauces, dressings and salads.
Marjoram (or sweet marjoram) has light green to green-grey leaves that are borne on greyish stems. The plant’s growth is more delicate and less compact than organum, and the taste of the leaves is much lighter, although still aromatic. Many cooks prefer marjoram because it has the taste of oregano but without the pungency.
- Marjoram prefers full sun with some afternoon shade and well-draining, fertile soil.
- It grows easily into a compact bush, 30-60cm high.
- For best growth it must be fed monthly with a liquid fertiliser at half strength.
- Marjoram is more often grown as an annual as it’s sensitive to frost.
- Water every second day, pick tips regularly and remove the flowering heads to prevent it from getting scraggly.
- Harvest or pinch back the leaves regularly to
prevent woody growth.
Along with thyme and oregano, marjoram is one of the three basic members of the bouquet garni, the backbone of the Spanish influence in Mexican food.
Grown for its spicy seeds, cumin is an unusual crop that’s well worth trying. The seeds’ bitter taste is a distinctive element in Mexican food. When spring warms up, sow seed in situ (seedlings don’t transplant well), and keep the soil moist at all times. A spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal. The seeds should be ready for harvest by late autumn.
Plant a mexican pot:
Create your own hot Mexican herb pot that also suits your other favourite styles of cooking. Pick a colourful plastic container, or paint a large terracotta pot of simple and traditional design in very gaudy and colourful stripes. Then plant it up using chillies as your main focus, surrounded by parsley, coriander, garlic chives and oregano.