You've heard the name, but do you actually know what it is?
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While the word “adobo” might be a familiar presence in your pantry or recipe collection, the quintessential Latin seasoning has still maintained a somewhat mysterious presence to many American cooks, thanks in large part to its culturally complicated—and somewhat confusing—background.

Though the history and definition of adobo is complex and ever-evolving, with ties to many Portuguese and Spanish-influenced cultures across the world, the classic spice mixture has come to be a staple of kitchens across Latin America and the world. Existing as both a dry spice blend and a marinade, the essence of adobo can range from the strong garlicky flavor in the dry blend to the fiery red chili that gives the flavorful marinade its signature heat.

At its core, adobo is the ultimate marinating spice blend, with a name that comes from the Spanish word “adobar,” meaning, “to marinade.” Through the years, this term evolved from being a blanket description for all marinating in Spanish cooking to refer to a specific blend of spices and ingredients, now most prominently used in Mexican and Latin American cooking.

Not to be confused with Filipino adobo—the national dish of the Philippines, consisting of a protein or vegetables marinated in soy, vinegar, garlic, and a variety of spices and simmered in its own marinade—Mexican Adobo is a spice blend with origins that stretch back to their Spanish conquerors. However, the Filipino dish also received its name from Spanish colonizers who saw the resemblance between the Filipino’s methods of preparing meat and their own classic marination techniques.

In Mexico, adobo became the epitome of old and new, a mixture between their most important native ingredients and the flavor influences brought to them by the Spanish who took control of their nation in the 1500s. Traditional Spanish spices were combined with Mexico’s signature foods—chilies and tomatoes—in order to create a marinade that is still used prominently in Mexican cooking.

However, when it comes to utilizing the blend as a dry spice mix, cooks of the Caribbean—particularly Hispanic islands like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico—have come to corner the market, using the mixture as their primary spice rub for a variety of meats. The adobo seasoning mix—whether homemade or store-bought—typically consists of garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, salt, and pepper, along with the chef’s preferred additions.

In the dry spice market, Goya is the name most households associate with adobo, and the brand produces over 10 varieties of the versatile spice mix, with options that up the heat, reduce the sodium, and incorporate ingredients like bitter orange, saffron, and coriander. However, many households have been familiarized with the ingredient via cans of Chipotle chilies in adobo, a key ingredient in many dishes that call for an infusion of fiery flavor, from Smothered Steak with Adobo Gravy to Adobo-Lime Chicken Tacos.

Whichever way you choose to use the complex seasoning—as a dry spice mix or marinade—you’re sure to experience a hit of Spanish-inspired flavor that will keep you coming back for more. Try the flavorful blend for yourself in recipes like Pressure Cooker Adobo Chicken, Grilled Pork Adobo, and Sea Scallops Adobo.

To learn more about some of the world’s favorite spice blends, check out Everything You Need to Know About Herbes de Provence, Dukkah, and Curry Powder.