Herbs & Plants

Hoja Santa

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Mexican Pepperleaf (Piper auritum Kunth)
Plant family: Piperaceae (pepper family)

Hoja santa (Piper auritum, synonymous with Piper sanctum) is an aromatic herb with a heart-shaped, velvety leaf which grows in tropic Mesoamerica. The name hoja santa means “sacred leaf” in Spanish.A Mexican legend says that Virgin Mary dried diapers of the infant Jesus on the bush of this plant, hence the name. It is also known as yerba santa, hierba santa, Mexican pepperleaf, root beer plant, and sacred pepper.

The hoja santa (sacred leaf), hoja de la estrella (leaf of the star), or Veracruz pepper (Piper auritum Kunth) has a native range from southern Mexico into northern South America. It is a successional plant found in moist forests where gaps in the canopy allow some sunlight to the forest floor. Although it is considered a shade-loving plant, hoja santa will not tolerate deep shade.

Tropic Mesoamerica (Southern México, Guatemala, Panamá, Northern Colombia).

Plant Description:
Hoja santa has a knobby herbaceous stem and grows up to six meters in height supporting itself with prop roots near the base of the stem. The large leaves arise alternately along the stem. Hoja santa blooms with a myriad of tiny reduced flowers arranged along a thin arching spike.The leaves can reach up to 30 centimeter (12 in) or more in size. The complex flavor of hoja santa is not so easily described; it has been compared to eucalyptus, licorice, sassafras, anise,nutmeg, mint, tarragon, and black pepper. The flavor is stronger in the young stems and veins The flowers consist of a pistil with a fringed stigma, two anthers, and a small peltate (umbrella-shaped) bract. The flowers are followed by a single-seeded fruit, a drupe. The seeds are dispersed by frugivorous (fruit-eating) bats.


Sensory quality:
Aromatic and pleasant, loosely reminiscent to anise, nutmeg and black pepper. The flavour is strongest in the young stems and veins, which have additionally a pleasant warming pungency.

Main constituents:
The essential oil from the leaves (0.2%) is rich in safrole (up to 80%), a substance with pleasant odour. Furthermore, a large number of mono- and sesquiterpenoids have been found

A heart-shaped, dinner plate-sized leaf is making its way onto restaurant tables in downtown Washington.

It is often used in Mexican cuisine for tamales, the fish or meat wrapped in fragrant leaves for cooking, and as an essential ingredient in Mole Verde, the green sauce originated in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. It is also chopped to flavor soups and eggs. In Central Mexico, it is used to flavor chocolate drinks. In southeastern Mexico, a green liquor called Verdín is made from hoja santa. American cheesemaker Paula Lambert created “Hoja santa cheese”, the goat’s milk cheese wrapped with the hoja santa leaves and impregnated with its flavor. While typically used fresh, it is also used in dried form, although drying removes much of the flavor and makes the leaf too brittle to be used as a wrapper.

Like its more famous Old World cousin, black pepper (Piper nigrum), hoja santa is used as a seasoning. In this case, it is the leaves and not the ‘peppercorns’ that flavor foods. The Maya and Aztec made tamales—fish or meat wrapped in fragrant leaves for cooking. And the ancients used many types of leaves, not just corn husks around corn meal dough and seasoned meat. Many of these ancient tamal entrees persist; pescado (fish) en hoja santa is still fine dining especially near the Gulf coast in Veracruz.

The essential oils in the leaf are rich in safrole, a substance also found in sassafras, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras bark along with sassafras oil and safrole as flavoring agents because of their carcinogenic properties and the Council of Europe imposed the same ban in 1974, so the safety of flavoring food with hoja santa remains questionable.


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