Ingredient Spotlight: Hoja Santa

Discovering a new (to us) herb is always an exciting event, and lately the object of our enthusiasm is hoja santa. Also known as Mexican pepperleaf or root beer plant, these heart-shaped leaves can be found growing throughout the Americas – maybe in your backyard! Have you ever cooked with them?

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The leaves smell and taste like a combination of root beer or sassafras and anise. In Mexican cooking, they're often used to wrap tamales, meat, or fish, and are a key ingredient in Oaxacan mole verde, a green sauce. Inspired by a Texan cheesemaker's Hoja Santa Goat Cheese, we recently wrapped some fresh goat cheese in the leaves for a couple of days and they imparted a slightly minty, tarragon-like flavor. We're eager to think up more ways to cook with the leaves – wrapping them around ingredients before grilling or steaming, chopping them up into vegetables and stews, and more.

To find hoja santa, check backyards, Latino grocery stores, and farmers' markets (if you live in LA, Lily Baltazar of ABC Rhubarb sells them at the Hollywood farmers' market). And for more information on the plant, see the Mexican Pepperleaf (Piper auritum Kunth) page at Spice Pages.

Related: Ingredient Spotlight: Chipilín

(Images: Emily Ho, Forest & Kim Starr licensed under Creative Commons)

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Emily Han (formerly Emily Ho) is a writer, recipe developer and educator on topics such as food preservation, wild food and herbalism. She is author of Wild Drinks and Cocktails (Fall 2015), co-founder of Food Swap Network and creator of Miss Chiffonade