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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pápalo: An Intriguing Mexican Herb

A few sprigs of pápalo in a favorite small Mexican jug

Pápalo: An Intriguing Mexican Herb
by Victoria Challancin

Porophyllum ruderale 
or Porophyllum ruderale spp macrocephalum
Family:  Asteraceae

Like fellow foodies all over the world, I constantly seek out new taste sensations, unique gustatory thrills, novel ingredients, and uncharted culinary territories.  And when I first tasted pápalo some 30 years ago while traveling in the southern Mexican state of Puebla, I felt like I had struck gold.

"Distinctive.  Unusual.  Complex.  Lively.  Odiferous. Pungent.  Tastes like the love child of cilantro and arugula.  Cilantro on steroids."  I've read and heard many descriptions over the years of this unique Mexican culinary herb, but none really do it justice.  Certainly, there are strong overtones of a cilantro-like aroma, but still, this misses the mark.  Maybe Wikipedia's description of its flavor as a cross between coriander (cilantro), arugula, and rue sums it up best.  But really, you just have to try it for yourself.

Pápalo leaves

Names fascinate me in general.  Names, etymology, usage--all of it together.  And with the names themselves, there is the attendant process of naming and claiming, making something your own, which brings in the added depth to the name imparted by logic, whimsy, poetry, and culture.  Take the word pápalo, for example.  The name comes from the native Mexican/Central American Nahuatl language where the word "papalotl" means butterfly.  Is it for the shape of the delicate leaves?  Is it because butterflies love the plant?  Probably it is a bit of both.  Papaloquelite  is another common term used for it, a term which loosely translates as "butterfly weed/herb."   Yet in other places it is called mampuito, or skunk.  That might give you a hint that, like cilantro or coriander itself, the taste of pápalo is controversial; you might love it or hate it with equal abandon, ut you will probably not remain indifferent.  As you move further south to Brazil, you will hear it called cravo-de-uruba, which means "black vulture's marigold" in Portuguese.  Yep, it is poetry alright. But whatever you call it, it remains a beloved herb in some places and virtually unknown in others.

Some other common names for P. ruderale ssp. macrocephalum:  (see more names for the P.ruderale ssp. ruderale below) chipaca, hierba de venado, mampuito, oreja de monte, purranga, ruda cimarrona (wild rue), summer cilantro, Bolivian coriander, quuilquina, quirquiña, yerba porosa, killi, ruda de gallina, gallenaza, and many more.

Another common variety is apparently indigenous to the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands, and from Costa Rica in Central America to Venezuela, where it is  commonly called anamu (scented herb), chucha, guacamaya, namu, rudade gallina, venadillo, yerba de cabra, and yerba del venado.

Oh the jugs, the jugs, the Mexican jugs...

Pápalo, tropical and sub-tropical annual, belongs to the largest family of plants, the Asteraceae or Compositae, which has over 20,000 flowering plants. The multi-branching plant has blue-green leaves that are 1 to 2 1/2 inches long.  The stems can reach up to 6 feet in height in very hot climates.  The wavy, notched leaves have visible elongated translucent oil glands which contain potent monoterpines, compounds found in nearly all essential oils. It needs well-drained soil, full sun or some partial shade,  and will not withstand frost.  The botanical name for pápalo is porophyllum, which means "pored leaf,"  The flowers, which appear in purple to brownish-green starbursts at the ends of the branches, are showy, but when too many of the plants exist together, they are said to emit an strong, rather unpleasant smell. [In fact, the scent of pápalo reminds me of the illusive Yerba de Venado, which I wrote about here].
Sprigs of pápalo

Many people are surprised when they learn that cilantro (coriander) isn't indigenous to Mexico, so popular is it in Mexican cuisine.  However, while the early native peoples of Mexico and Central America did not have cilantro, they weren't without their own lemony-fresh, lively herb used as a condiment to punch up the flavors of a number of dishes.  Enter pápalo.  

Native to Mexico, Central and South America, growing as far north as Texas and the American Southwest pápalo, though not widely used, does make an appearance on both the culinary and medicinal scene.  In Mexico, it grows wild and is also cultivated in small pockets throughout the Republic.

When the ever-pioneering, influential Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkely, California, first tasted pápalo in 1999 at a Midwest food festival, she immediately bought up every available packet of seeds for her restaurant garden, reportedly asking why she had never experienced it before.  With Waters as a proponent and supporter, that should have been enough to shoot pápalo to the foreground of the cutting-edge culinary world, but somehow it still hasn't really caught on in the states.

One more...

Medicinal Uses:
While I have found articles documenting the study of the volatile monoterpenes found on the oil glands on the leaves, I haven't discovered any actual studies of pápalo's medicinal properties.  However, we do know that it has been used in many places in Mexico and Central and South America as medicine for high blood pressure, stomach disorders, and infections.  In parts of Bolivia, where it is consumed almost daily, it is believed by the Quechua people to lower blood pressure and to treat liver ailments.  The Chacobo Indians of Bolivia also use pápalo leaves to reduce swelling in infections.  As far as its uses in Mexico are concerned, I have only found culinary references, but you can bet there are medicinal attributes ascribed to it as well by Mexican herbalists or curanderos.

Culinary Uses:
As in the case of cilantro, I would assume that pápalo could be an acquired taste for some.  I have seen it compared to asafoetida because it actually tastes better than it smells.  Or so say some.  However you view it, it remains a very popular flavoring agent in some places.  Blending well with chiles, salsas, mushrooms, seafood, citrus flavors and more, pápalo imparts an unusual mysterious tang to any dish it touches.  But beware that it is strong; start with a little and judiciously add more as needed.

Although the incredibly knowledgeable Mexican food maven Diana Kennedy is probably right when she says there is no substitute for pápalo when making recipes that require it, I dare say the reverse is true and that you can use it as a substitute in recipes that call for cilantro, albeit in much smaller quantities.  Pápalo is never really cooked, or if so, is added at the last minute; rather it is used raw.  In the state of Puebla mentioned above, it is often found in a vase on the table so that diners can add it to their dishes (usually a pork sandwich called a cemita after the sesame roll in which it is served) according to individual taste.  This might be a good starting point.  Once you begin experimenting with it though, use about one third or less of the amount of cilantro you would normally use in a dish.

Cook's Personal Note:  My husband, who doesn't really like cilantro, just came home and immediately asked, "Whoa!  What's that smell?"  After I explained about the pápalo, he commented, "Well, that goes waaaaaay beyond cilantro."  He didn't seem pleased. Nor did he choose to eat any with his quesadilla at lunch.

To help you get started in the exploration of this exciting herb, here is a recipe I created as a dish to accompany a talk I am giving today in a terrific plant study group I belong to.  It is inspired by a salsa that used to always be on the table of a favorite, but unfortunately now closed, San Miguel restaurant called Cha Cha Cha.  (Thank you, Mario, for great culinary memories).

Cook's Notes:  Often I make salsas with ingredients roasted on a comal or griddle.  Today I just boiled my ingredients as I really wanted the fresh herb to shine rather than the depth of roasted vegetables.  I only used one serrano chile, which was sufficiently picante for my purposes.  I also began with 3 pápalo leaves and then decided to add 2 more--and I could probably have even added a couple more.  Be judicious in your use of this herb.  You want to have it lend a certain je ne sais quoi to the dish, without being overpowering.

Tomatillos and serrano chiles

Salsa Verde con Aguacate y Pápalo

Recipe:  Salsa Verde con Aguacate y Pápalo
Mexican Green Sauce with Avocado and Pápalo
(by Victoria Challancin)

10 golf-ball size (or slightly smaller) tomatillos
2 small bulb/spring onions, white and 3 inches of green
1 1/2 garlic cloves
1 serrano chile, stemmed, or to taste
Two good pinches of salt
3 to 5 pápalo leaves, or more to taste
2 Haas avocados, cubed

Place the tomatillos, onions, garlic, chile, and salt in a medium saucepan with 2 inches of water.  Bring to a boil, lower heat slightly, cover, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until the tomatillos have lost their bright green color and have turned an olive green.  Drain and place in a blender.  Add 3 to 5 pápalo leaves; blend again.  Check seasoning for salt and herb flavoring, adjusting to taste.  Pour contents of blender into a bowl and allow to cool.

Cut two Haas avocados in half, remove the pits, and dice.  Add to the salsa.  Check for salt.  Serve fresh at room temperature.


I will submit this post to Weekend Herb Blog, hosted this week by Astrid from Paulchen's Foodblog.  WHB was originally started by Kalyn Denny from Kalyn's Kitchen.

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I wonder if we can get it here? It sounds amazing! :o

Ben said...

I must confess that I hated papalo when I was a kid. But when I came back to Mexico I gave it another try and now it's one of my favorite herbs. It's great to cook it or just eat it raw on tacos de chicharron. Yum yum!

Victoria Challancin said...

Wow, Ben. Raw on tacos de chicharron--that sounds great. I didn't know it was really used for cooking. I've always had it raw or added at the last minute. Good to know. Thanks. said...

When you posted about Hoja Santa I immediately went to a wonderful Mexican Supermarket in NYC and found this herb. Had to try it and now I love it as I do your blog.

Hotly Spiced said...

Well, that is a new one for me. I have never heard of it. It sounds wonderful and like a great cooking companion. I can think of many uses for it. Wish it was available here - I have never seen it!

alcuban said...

where do you buy pápalo in San Miguel? I don't recall even seeing it at the store.

Victoria Challancin said...

You can buy it at the San Juan Market or the Tuesday Market, occasionally at the Saturday Organic Market, but I actually bought this very fresh at Comercial Mexicana (Mega). Good luck!

Marillyn Beard said...

Papalo sounds really interesting! Would love to try them.

Yes, there is nothing like Mexican pottery! Love them!!

Hancey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Diego said...

Hi everyone. Mind asking, is it ok to clean the pápalo with drops of chlorum? i ask, cause I don`t know whethere it is the kind of vegetable that absorbs the chlorum or not?

Victoria Challancin said...

Gosh, Diego. I have no idea. I disinfect my vegetables with a purchased either iodine- or coloidal silver-based chemical. I don't know anything about clorum. Must investigate. Please let me know if you find out anything. Thakns!

Unknown said...

Papalos go way back in my family. I have always love the way they taste. I live in the Pacific Northwest. We grow them every year and safe seeds for the falling year. My mom also grows them in the winter indoors. I would like to share another herb it is call salpichies it kind of looks like thyme. Taste so good to.

Jonathan Miller said...

Great post. I used it in my own post about this interesting herb

Anonymous said...

I have papalos plant for sale if interested my email is I'm in Houston Texas.

Victoria Challancin said...

Unfortunately, I am in Mexico and can't cross the border with live plants. But luckily, I can usually find it in grocery stores here.

Hamdard Dawakhana said...

Nice blog and so informative thank you for sharing us such a great blog.

Unknown said...

Very informative, thank you for sharing and yes, the best is tacos de chicharron with papalo and hand made tortillas!!!

Unknown said...

Very informative, thank you for sharing and yes, the best is tacos de chicharron with papalo and hand made tortillas!!!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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I love papalo its flavor you cannot forget so yummy here in California you can find it in Vallartas Supermarkets and it is seasonal.

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