I've noticed that I never taste cumin in the tacos I get at restaurants, yet cumin is often the most noticeable flavor in pre-made taco seasonings. When and why did cumin get associated with tacos? Why is it not used in most restaurant preparations?

  • 5
    Because it's high in pottasium it can act as a preservative. And is used in chili powders. At restaurants where the food is made fresh there is no need to use pre made chilis powder or to use preservatives. Jan 21, 2020 at 13:31
  • Sounds reasonable. Do you think it originated with pre-made seasonings then? It would be nice if someone could track down a source on this. A possible complication: I've heard people associate this with tex-mex cooking, which on its face doesn't have anything to do with preservation. Jan 21, 2020 at 13:36
  • A part of tex-mex is chili powder. And chili powder have cummin. And I would point to first commercialyl avaiable chili powder using cumin as a spice that is also preservative. Much better and tasteful than using celery. Jan 21, 2020 at 13:41
  • 2
    the former, not the latter
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 22, 2020 at 21:00
  • 2
    I really recommend cumin in your guacamole, cheese sauce (macaroni & cheese, scalloped potatoes), and also tacos. Cumin is great.
    – Chloe
    Jan 23, 2020 at 19:32

3 Answers 3


I'm going to supplement Cindy's answer, by addressing this part of the question:

When and why did cumin get associated with tacos?

According to Wikipedia, Serious Eats, and History.com, the cumin was brought by workers the Spanish imported to Texas from the Canary Islands in the 1500s, who themselves were the descendants of North Africans and hence had a love for cumin. These workers introduced cumin into Tex-Mex cuisine, particularly Chile Con Carne, and when Willie Gebhardt created the first bottled "chili seasoning", it included cumin. Many Americans encountered Gebhardt's seasoning a generation before they experienced any other kind of Mexican food, forever associating it with the cuisine. And, for that matter, used Gebhardt's for taco meat, as my Oklahoma branch of the family did back into the 1930's.

The reason you don't encounter it in some Mexican restaurants it that the culinary staff are from Mexico, and not Texas or near Texas. As such, they never "picked up" cumin.

(and yes, this does mean that Thrillist is wrong about the origin. India was not involved)

  • 6
    A quibble: given that ~25% of food service workers are Hispanic or Latino, it's not unlikely that the staff at Tex-Mex restaurants actually is Mexican. Anyway, it's the recipes, not the staff that count.
    – Juhasz
    Jan 21, 2020 at 23:12
  • Right, I was including that: even in Tex-mex restaurants I know there's not much cumin unless you order the chili. I believe there's also some swapping cumin in for cilantro since so many customers don't eat it, but I don't have any references for that.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 22, 2020 at 7:36
  • This also raises the possibility that Chile Con Carne is as much a Spanish/African dish as it is a Mexican one. Gonna have to research that.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 22, 2020 at 7:55
  • @FuzzyChef have a look at tagine recipes like themediterraneandish.com/moroccan-vegetable-tagine-recipe and they'll look remarkably similar
    – Borgh
    Jan 22, 2020 at 11:24
  • um, not sure how that's similar to chile con carne?
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 22, 2020 at 15:08

As per your comment, the reason is Tex-mex flavor. Most of the pre-made 'Mexican' seasonings we get in the US have cumin and probably various other spices or flavorings not associated with authentic Mexican dishes.

If you look at recipes for authentic Mexican dishes, you won't typically find cumin in the ingredient list. While I like cumin in some Indian dishes or in chili, I find that I don't care for it in Mexican dishes. (And to be honest, I find it just as easy to add any desired spices as it would be to use a prepared package.)

You may find this article on Thrillist about the difference in Tex-Mex and Mexican food interesting. I'm sure an Internet search may yield many other articles.

Edited to add more info. From the linked article:

The differences between Mexican and Tex-Mex food can be summed up in the use of a few key ingredients found in the US that are scarcely used anywhere South of the Rio Grande. These ingredients are: beef, yellow cheese (like cheddar), wheat flour, black beans, canned vegetables (especially tomatoes), and cumin.

Chances are, if you're eating anything with one or more of those ingredients, it's Tex-Mex. Beef was the meat of choice for Texan ranchers back in the day, but it's hardly used in Mexican cuisine outside of the extreme Northern reaches of the country.

Cumin was imported to the US and England from India, and, while it's been slowly incorporated into dishes in Mexico, the US was quicker to adopt it as a spice. And let's face it -- gringos love wheat, and pretty much any burrito you'll find up here is wrapped in a wheat tortilla rather than the maize-based tortillas down South. A general rule is that the more starch there is, the more Tex-Mex it is (with the notable exception of tortas).

  • 1
    This still raises the question (which SZCZERZO's comment goes some way toward answering): why cumin? Is it just that it goes well with chilies (as attested by Indian cuisine) and has certain desirable properties, or is there more to the story? Jan 21, 2020 at 13:47

I would like to point out something in addition to Cindy's answer which I do not see addressed, as I feel it adds much to the reason of why as well: The predominant flavors of most authentic Mexican tacos are very simple, although delicious: Protein, Cilantro, Onions, and Corn Tortilla (perhaps Lime, depends on where you are). The blend of these flavors is very much a great combination, and needs little else, as the tortillas, cilantro, and onion all have a very pronounced flavor, even if the meat is more bland in nature.

Of course, from my understanding, things are a bit different depending on region as well, as tastes and common foods change as they would anywhere else. In truth, there is a good bit of variance between TexMex, "Mexican", and truly authentic Mexican (both in restaurants and at home.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.