Mesquite is a form of hardwood which is notable for its aromatic wood. In smoking, the wood is used to create a sweet flavor and a rich aroma; it can also be used in barbecuing. In addition to producing culinarily useful wood, the trees and shrubs also generate pods with edible seeds which can be used in a variety of ways. The flavor is so distinctive and sought after that many markets carry mesquite chips for grilling and smoking, along with artificial flavorings which are meant to mimic it.
The word comes from the Spanish mezquite, which is in turn taken from a Nahuatl word, mizquitl. More formally, the plant is known as a member of the Prospis genus, in the pea family. Several commercially valuable species are cultivated, including Honey Mesquite and Velvet Mesquite.
Depending on one's point of view, mesquite is either a commercially valuable plant or a weed. It is adapted for the hot, dry conditions abundant in Central America, and it has a specially designed root system which is designed to tap deep water tables. As a result, the plant can endure in conditions where others cannot, potentially choking out other species. Because mesquite is rather spiny, ranchers and gardeners often find themselves struggling to contain it.
Like other legumes, these plants produce distinctive pods. Native Americans ground the seeds into a flour which was typically mixed with other flours in baked goods for a rich nutty taste and aroma. The pods can also be fermented to make wines, and they can be specially treated to create a distinctive jelly. The leaves were used historically as animal fodder, while both the branches and the roots can be burned as an aromatic cooking fuel.
In addition to being used in cooking, mesquite can also be used in furniture. The plants sometimes develop very intriguingly grained woods which can take a high polish and a great deal of abuse as household furnishings. Mesquite furniture is sometimes available in regions where the plant grows wild, as is untreated wood for the purpose of making craft projects.
If you plan on using mesquite in cooking, you can purchase it chipped, which is ideally suited to smoking and grilling. It also comes in the form of grilling planks; make sure to use food-grade mesquite, as wood for carpentry is sometimes treated with chemicals to make it water and insect resistant. For best effect, soak the chips and planks before use, ensuring that they heat slowly and impart their flavor over an extended period of time.