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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hoja Santa: The Root Beer Plant

Hoja Santa: The Root Beer Plant
by Victoria Challancin

I’ve heard it said that hoja santa (Piper auritum) tastes like anise with hints of tarragon, black pepper, nutmeg, and sassafras thrown in. Perhaps. But to me, the name given to the plant in the Southern United States says it all: Root Beer Plant. Crush one of the velvety, heart-shaped leaves in your hand, and you’ll know what I mean. Root Beer. Pure and simple. And it’s hard to imagine that one plant could capture so complex a flavor, but Hoja Santa does just that.

Indigenous to Mesoamerica, where it grows wild, the plant is common in the cooking of Central America and the Caribbean. On one trip to the Mexican state of Oaxaca, I was amazed to find that almost every house had its own cultivated hoja santa plant growing nearby. So enchanted was I when I attended a class on tamales, taught by the knowledgeable Zapotec cooking teacher, Reyna Mendoza, a native of the village of Teotitlan del Valle, that I was given a plant to take with me. A four-foot plant with a large ball of roots and clinging dirt. It was placed it in a plastic market bag for me, and the smiling gardener was sure that I would have no problem returning with it by bus to San Miguel de Allende, where I live in the more northern state of Guanajuato. I have often wondered what the women who cleaned my beautiful room at La Noria in Oaxaca thought when they found trimmed hoja santa limbs and extra soil tidily piled in my bathroom as I attempted to pare my prize to a portable size. Guiltily, I left a nice tip.

Well, lug it home I did. Through four bus stations and in two taxis, I schlumped along with my precious cargo. Determined to have a constant source of this surprising plant, I finally made it home. And although I must protect it in the winter and baby it in the summer, it is a thriving source of culinary wonder.

A Little History
Mexico is a land of legends and the story of how Hoja Santa, or Holy Leaf, got its name is among the most charming. When the Virgin Mary needed a place to dry the diapers of baby Jesus, what better spot than atop an hoja santa plant, which would not only serve as a clothesline, but also impart a very pleasant aroma? Charming and practical. The Mexican way.

As with many much-used plants, the name varies in Mexico. I may know it as hoja santa, but others call it acuyo, yerba santa, hierba santa, hoja de anís, and anisillo. In English it is often referred to as “Mexican pepperleaf” or “root beer plant.” The Aztecs called it tlanapaquelite. Botanically, it is sometimes confused with kava kava (Piper methysticum) and for that reason is also sometimes called “false kava.”

One internet source whose material I can’t vouch for, gives its medicinal properties, according to Aztec use as: stimulant, analgesic, and stomachic. It was said to be used by the Aztecs for asthma, bronchitis, laryngitis, and apnia. Other sources in Spanish reveal that these properties are still considered valid today and that it is used topically for skin irritations as well as for placing the alcohol-soaked leaves on the breasts of lactating women to increase milk-production. As an infusion, it is drunk to stimulate digestion and to calm colic. It is said to have diuretic and anesthetic properties as well. And a homeopathic tincture of hoja santa is often employed for bronchial infections and asthma.

In the United States, the FDA has been less kind. Because, like sassafras, it contains the essential oil safrole, which is known to be carcinogenic in animals, some sources consider it to be toxic. As an ingredient, safrole was banned in the 1960s and the making of root beer extract now uses artificial flavorings. However, Wikipedia refers to an article that states “toxicological studies show that humans do not process safrole into its carcinogenic metabolite.” Dangerous or not, hoja santa is used extensively in the cooking of Mexico, particularly in salsas, stews, and tamales.

Although the leaves can be chopped and added to dishes, a more common method involves using the leaves as a wrapper, much like corn husks. I have added it to mole verde, Oaxacan-style, to serve over fish, ground it into hot chocolate, and served it as a base or “plate” for both fish and eggs. The beautiful and tranquil Posada Corazon in San Miguel, serves its signature egg dish, Huevos Enojados ("angry eggs"), in a wrapping of hoja santa.

When I first introduced the leaves to Mexican students in my Mexican cooking classes here in San Miguel, they had never cooked with, but only knew of its existence. Now I have a fairly consistent stream of people asking to borrow a few leaves or a cutting of the plant.

Below is a picture of an appetizer we made in class from the beautiful cookbook Antojería Mexicana by Patricia Quintana. The hoja santa leaves, which are softened first in boiling water, are used as a wrapper for goat cheese and then macerated in a vinaigrette made from allspice berries.

Hoja Santa-Wrapped Goat Cheese in a Vinaigrette of Allspice Berries and Balsamic Reduction
Queso de Cabra a la Hoja Santa con Vinagreta de Pimienta Gorda

Striped Bass in Corn Husks with Hoja Santa and Green Mole Sauce (from a recipe by Robert Del Grande from Café Annie, Houston, Texas

Mojarro en Hojas de Maiz con Hoja Santa y Mole Verde

If you are lucky enough to have an hoja santa plant growing in your garden, try introducing it into your cooking as a guaranteed surprise for your guests. Elusive, indescribable, and delicate, the aroma is sure to haunt.

This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, the helpful and fascinating event begun in 2005 by Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen and hosted this week by Kelly of Sounding My Barbaric Gulp. Check out both of these sites for tons of recipes and interesting articles including Kalyn's and Kelly's own recipes as well as those from bloggers all over the world.


Kalyn Denny said...

So interesting! I have never heard of this but I'm intrigued!

NKP said...

I have never heard of this plant either. Something tells me it would not like Canadian winters.
I love the little goat cheese bundles, they look great. I hope I get a chance to try this plant at some point in my life.

LifeExplorer. said...


I Read your blog entry here, and i too agree with you that this plant is truly wonderful and fascinating, i have one growing in my garden right now, and the taste i believe is like nothing else i have ever experienced, truly magical at that! Thanks.

badboy said...

Hi, I live in LongIsland NY, and I have done a lot of searching for this leaf and cannot find any store locally or online that sell it, can you please tell me a store name so I can get in touch with them. Thanks.

Victoria Challancin said...

Dear Badboy, I brought my plant from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca by bus to San Miguel de Allende, where I live. Unfortunately, I don't know of US sources. The plant is common in the South, often simply called "the root beer plant." I wish I could be more helpful.

Unknown said...

to badboy: you can find hierba santa in mexican grocery stores but they come dehydrated in little plastic envelopes where the spices and dry peppers isle.

Victoria Challancin said...

Thanks, Angelica. Because I don't live in the US, I just don't know these things. Very helpful indeed.

FOODalogue said...

I have never heard of this sounds wonderful. I wish I was close to 'borrow' a few leaves.

Dru Melville said...

I live in Hollywood Florida and I planted a small Root Beer about a year ago. It is growing like crazy I have to keep cutting it back. I wish I could sell some of the leaves I must have at least 500 or more leaves.

nikki diener said...

i love hoja santa! i live in df, and im looking for some seeds... anyone know where to get them? so good! really!

Flavors of the Sun said...

Nikki, I brought my plant back by bus from Oaxaca. I have shared pieces of the plant with others who had no trouble growing it, but have never seen the actual seeds for sale. If you ever come to San Miguel, let me know and I will certainly give you a cutting.

Anonymous said...

I live in Ohio and have a Hoja Santa plant I've been growing for about 3 years now. I keep it in a pot and bring it inside for the winter. I've heard it may survive outdoors in zones 5-7 with winter mulching. I bought mine through Mulberry Creek Farms, an organic farm and greenhouse in Huron, Ohio.

randy benson said...

They don't set viable seed; they're grown from root divisions. You can get them from 'Almost Eden'
in Louisiana. They're nice peeps - I just ordered 4 2.25-inch pots; John McMillian called later to say they were out of that size, could he substitute a 1-gallon pot? It arrived yesterday and it's gorgeous (and huge). He absorbed the difference in shipping AND refunded $15.80.

Victoria Challancin said...

Thanks for the helpful info, Randy. I brought my plant, which someone dug up for me in Oaxaca, in a burlap bag, schlepping it on buses all over Mexico--but it is thriving, though the winter kills it back each year. However, it does come back once the freezes are over.

alcuban said...

Just a week ago we had the huevos enojados at Corazon and they were delicious; totally different from anything I had tasted before. But where do you hoja santa plants around here?


Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Alfredo, I lugged my plant back from Oaxaca, so I'm not sure where it is available here. It's a bit fragile in the winter and I have to cut it way back, but it always returns in the spring. I am happy to share some with you though, just let me know and you can come by for it (a stalk or two to put in the ground, not just leaves). It truly is wonderful and unusual.

John W. said...

I bought a generous hoja Santa root from Miguel at the San Miguel farmers market last fall for 50 pesos. I dont know his last name but he and his father who used to own Comacho, the gardening store on the Ancha, are at the market every week selling vegetables and plants. They both speak great English and have been helpful with all kinds of gardening issues.
Our plant is doing very well in a protected patio. We cook with its leaves all the time. besides steaming fish in the leaves, we wrap them around panela cheese and saute them in butter.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

The plant I brought from Oaxaca finally outgrew its pot and is now in the ground. I have to cut it back each winter, but it always rebounds. Love your ideas to use it.

Unknown said...

I live in San Marcos, TX. It grows really well here and spreads by the roots. It will freeze back during a cold winter, but always comes back. It handles the heat really well and the drought. I have it on a drip irrigation system. It will droop and loose leaves during the hottest part of summer.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thanks for sharing. When my plant was in a big pot, it really needed a lot of water and would droop unless given a daily drink in hot weather. Now that it is in the ground, it seems sturdier--but it still dies back in the winter.

Unknown said...

I live in fort worth texas & moved into my house 4 years ago. I just found out what this huge plant was growing in my front garden I actualy just smelt the leafs today! Hard to believe I know but this entry was so interesting maybe I'll try cooking with the leafs next awsome thanks

Robert Zahn said...

Has no one found it to be horribly invasive? I love it, but it's all across the yard now.

Victoria Challancin said...

Mine just grows up straight, like a small tree, with no spreading. And I have seen them all over southern Mexico where it was the same. I wonder why?

Don Cuevas said...

Hoja santa is one of my favorite herbs, especially when it is used to cook fish. But I haven't had much opportunity to cook with it. Chef Blanca Vidales, of La Mesa de Blanca in Ziracuaretiro, Michoacán once gave us some.

I want to to say that your blog is detailed and interesting.

Don Cuevas

Victoria of Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank,s Don Cuevas. It is always nice to get a good report. Do keep playing with hoja santa, though, as it can produce some surprising results.

Anonymous said...

I have been looking for seeds or some way to get a cutting from Hoja Santa: The Root Beer Plant I wude love it if you can seal me a few cuttings and send them to me if you are willing to do so send me a e-mill I am looking forwad to hearing from you thanks for youer time

Victoria said...

I would be happy to share a cutting from my plany, but I cannot mail it from Mexico.

mayteba said...

Try the tea !! Its soo good!!

bwells said...

I am so glad to find your site! I have this 'root beer plant' in our atrium at Meridian Activity Center in Mississippi. The name I was given was sarsasparilla, sorry folks, to give out wrong info. We share it with anyone as it is a profuse sharing plant! MMM I might even try cooking with it. Thanks for the interesting blog.

Unknown said...

this wonderful plant has taken over a corner of my farm in Hawaii I am always looking for new ways to use it especially with our own chocolate Great article

Unknown said...

I bought a plant from the Farmer's Market here in Houston, Tx. I love cooking. Southern Mexican style. Learning how to use it in cooking. Taste great in mexican style stews. Cooked it with chicken breast cuts,raisins, celery,onions,and turkey stuffing. Made wraps with leaves. Baked. Tasty Tex-Mex style.

Victoria Challancin said...

Paul, I love the idea using hoja santa with chicken breast. Great recipe. Thanks!

robyn said...

I live in Alamos Sonora Mexico. Hoja Santa grows very large here. I tried to start it from a young branch, but no luck. I have only used it as a tea and it is delicious! The locals use it as an herb and one use is drink before bedtime for a great nghts sleep.

Unknown said...

I live in San Antonio, TX and someone gave me a small plant 10 years ago. It spreads by the root system, and I dig up the small plants and sell them at my garage sale twice a year. I never have enough ready to sell. They go so fast. I cut them to the ground every winter, and they come back in the spring and grow to at least 6 feet tall. A lady from Mexico told me what they were called and how to use them in cooking. I thought they just made a pretty garden plant.

Nagi@RecipeTinEats said...

This sounds amazing! And it's my first time hearing of this plant. Thanks for sharing some information about this!

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