Hoja Santa – The Root Beer Plant

What’s In a name?

Hoja Santa / The Rootbeer Plant
Other Names: root beer plant, Mexican pepperleaf, hoja santa, acuyo, yerba santa, hierba santa, hoja de anís, and anisillo, eared pepper, anise piper, sabalero, hoja de la estrella, allacuyo, tlanapaquelite,  sakau, false sakau, false kava (Pohnpei)

Scientific Name: Piper auritum

This miraculous heart-shaped velvety leaf  is nicknamed hoja santa (sacred leaf) and for good reason. Crushed up, it can applied to skin irritations, bug bites, and wounds to relieve discomfort. Infused into a hot tea, it can be used as a pain reliever and help soothe bronchial afflictions. It is said that hoja santa tastes like anise with hints of tarragon, black pepper, nutmeg and sassafras thrown in.  The large love heart leaves are adorned with white candle-like flowers that smell deliciously fragrant of anise and black pepper. It really does taste like sassafras and sarsaparilla both of which are used in the creation of root beer. Although not related they all contain safrole.  A taste test may numb the lips and tongue.

Indigenous to Mesoamerica, where it grows wild, the plant is common in the cooking of Central America and the Caribbean.

Hoja santa grows well in southern and eastern Mexico and in the warmest states of the United States. This attractive plant holds its large leaves horizontally around one or more thick central stalks. The leaves are easily six inches-often a foot-across, bright green on top and paler underneath.

The complex flavor of hoja santa is not so easily described; it has been compared to eucalyptus, licorice, sassafras, anise, nutmeg and black pepper. The flavor is stronger in the young stems and veins.

The dinner plate-sized, heart-shaped leaves of this tall Central American herb are not yet available in the produce sections of supermarkets across the country, but this may well change as Americans continue to embrace ethnic cuisines and seasonings of all kinds.It is often used in Mexican cuisine, especially around Veracruz, as a wrapper for cheeses, tamales, or for seasoned seafood, poultry, or meats which are then steamed or baked; the leaf itself is not usually eaten when used as a wrapper. It is mainly a flavoring agent that is discarded after the filling is eaten. It is an essential ingredient in mole verde and mole amarillo, green and yellow seasoning pastes from the Oaxaca region. It is also chopped up or julienned and added to stews and soups, and added to scrambled eggs; when added to moles, soups, stews, or eggs it is eaten. In Central Mexico hoja santa is used to flavor chocolate drinks, and in Tabasco and Yucatán it is an ingredient in a green liquor called Verdín. While most often used fresh, hoja santa can also be used in dried form, although drying subdues much of the flavor and makes the leaf too brittle to be used as a wrapper.

Hoja santa is a member of the pepper family, so there is a slight peppery element to the flavor. It contains some of the same aromatic oils found in sassafras (safrole in particular), hence the root beer smell. The taste is unique, with definite root beer nuances and a sweet anise edge; immediately apparent when you crush or nibble on a leaf. It is complimentary to the basic Mexican flavors of cilantro, lime, garlic, and chile peppers, and when cooked, sort of lurks in the flavor background rather than dominate. If you are going to use it to wrap a food, the leaf either has to have been picked far enough in advance to have sufficiently wilted, or the veins will crack and the leaf will split when you try to wrap with it. An alternative is to soak the leaves in hot water to make them limp enough to fold, although this reduces the flavor intensity slightly.

Hoja santa grows very well in the Austin area, preferring a rich, moist soil with lots of compost, and morning to midday sun with afternoon shade. It will freeze to the ground with the first frost, but reemerge late in the spring and rapidly grow to 6+ feet in height. It spreads by underground roots, so it can be a little invasive; give it plenty of room to grow.

To cook with hoja santa try wrapping fish fillets, shrimp, scallops, chicken, or pork in a leaf with aromatics like garlic, shallots, or grated onion, using a little white wine, butter, and citrus. A Mexican verde sauce made from roasted tomatillos, garlic, and scallions, cilantro, Serrano chilies, and lime pairs well with the leaf, as does a Veracruz-style sauce of olive oil, tomato, garlic, white wine, capers, olives, green chilies, parsley, cilantro, and butter. It also works reasonable well in a pesto, or minced and tossed with pasta. Grows like a weed, makes a dramatic accent in the landscape, and taste great on the plate; what more could you ask for?

History/Legends

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. 

Heath Benefits of Hoja Santa
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.

Benefits

  • Helps reduce inflammation
  • Treat digestive disorders
  • Healing of bruises & wounds
  • Soothes respiratory issues
  • Relives muscle spasms
  • Helps fight insomnia
  • http://flavorsofthesun.blogspot.com/2008/07/hoja-santa-root-beer-plant.html
  •  https://ayushology.com/health-benefits-of-herbs/health-benefits-of-mexican-pepper-leaf/
  • https://belize.com/belize-herbs-hoja-santa/
  • https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/food/2012-08-24/hoja-santa/
  • https://theepicentre.com/spice/hoja-santa/
  • https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/food/2012-08-24/hoja-santa/

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((¸¸.·´ ..·´ Trish-:¦:-
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