What is Hoja Santa?
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.
Hoja santa has to be sold as a fresh herb because the leaves are not used dried. It is easy to cook with, and its pleasant anise flavor with herbal, flinty overtones is easy to like. The aroma carries enough of a whiff of black pepper to remind you that the two seasonings are closely related, belonging to the same genus. 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 understand – root beer.
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.
Cooking with Hoja Santa
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.
While typically used fresh, it is also used in dried form, although drying removes much of the flavor. American cheesemaker Paula Lambert uses it for “Hoja santa cheese”, the goat’s milk cheese wrapped with the hoja santa leaves and impregnated with its flavor. Hoja santa leaves are usually used as wrappers for steamed or baked fish, shrimp, chicken, or cheese. Or they may serve as an inner wrapper for tamales. Unlike banana leaves or corn husks, these leafy wrappers are eaten right along with the filling.
To make a wrapper, rinse each leaf well, lay it on a board and slice along the central vein on both sides, cutting the heart shape into two lobes. Discard the tough central vein and use the two large pieces as wrappers.
You can also make a chiffonade of them or use them as a seasoning. Because they are tough, hoja santa leaves are not good in salads. They need to be cooked, but the good news is, they keep their flavor and remain green when heated. They are used in Mexico to season a mole for pork and are sometimes added to posole verde. For these purposes, you may substitute the feathery green leaves of fennel for hoja santa, if necessary, using about one-half cup fennel leaves for each hoja santa leaf called for in the recipe.
With a blender, it is possible to make a hoja santa sauce, good with fish or chicken. Tear up a few leaves into largish pieces, and pack them loosely into a measuring cup. As you tear, you may find a few more tough veins to discard. Put one cup of leaves and one-third cup chicken broth into the blender and puree as smooth as possible. Season with salt and pepper, and with garlic, onions, green chiles, or whatever suits your mood. Now fry the sauce, as they do in Mexican cooking: pour into a skillet with a small amount of oil and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Turn down the heat immediately, simmer for about ten minutes and serve. This very green sauce looks wonderful with an accent of finely shredded carrots.
The leaves can be cut into strips and fried crisp, as with fried parsley. Fry them in hot oil for two minutes or so, until they turn dark green and curl up. Drain on a paper towel, and add a pinch of salt. Use as a garnish for any entree, especially fish, or with vegetables such as squash.
Hoja santa tastes so good with fish that in parts of Panama the leaves are fed to live, stocked fish, which then acquire the flavor of the herb.
Substitutes for Hoja Santa
Unsprayed avocado leaves, Swiss chard or chopped fennel (if recipe calls for leaves to be chopped). Banana leaves can be used as a food wrapper and corn husks for wrapping tamales.
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.
English: eared pepper, anise piper, root beer plant
Spanish: hoja santa, anisillo, sabalero, hoja de la estrella, hoja de anis, allacuyo, yerba santa
Other: Hawaiian sakau, false sakau, false kava (Pohnpei)
Photo by David J. Stang / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)