Hoja santa (pronounced O-hah SAN-tah) is an herb commonly used in the cuisines of central and southern Mexico to flavor many savory dishes. The term hoja santa means "sacred leaf" in Spanish, but this herb also goes by several other names, including yerba santa, Mexican pepperleaf, and root beer plant. It is native to Mexico and South America and is also grown in the Southwest United States as well as Florida and California. The herb can be used both fresh and dried, but fresh is preferred, and necessary when wrapping food; dried becomes brittle and loses its flavor. Hoja santa is available year-round but can be difficult to find in certain parts of the United States.
What Is Hoja Santa?
Hoja santa is from the Piper auritum plant and is a part of the peppercorn family. The large, heart-shaped, velvety leaves are a bright green color on top and paler on the underside. They measure up to one foot across and grow horizontally on thick stalks.
Hoja santa has an unusual and quite complex flavor which is stronger in younger, more tender leaves. This herb contains the same oils as the sassafras tree, which are used to make root beer; in the southern United States, hoja santa is actually known as the root beer plant. In other regions, it may be called tlanepa, acuyo, hierba santa, anisillo, momo, alaján, Vera Cruz pepper, or sacred pepper.
A popular legend explaining the name "holy leaf" is that the Virgin Mary would hang the Christ Child's freshly-laundered diapers to dry on the hoja santa plant. While this makes an enchanting story, it is most certainly untrue as this plant is native to tropical Meso-America and was unknown in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. Another thought as to the herb's name origin is that the ancient Aztecs, one of the first known users of hoja santa, used it for ritual purposes. They also included it as a flavoring in their bitter chocolate drinks. The herb is still used today in Central Mexico to flavor sweet hot chocolate and to prepare a medicinal tea. It is also made into a green liquor called Verdín in the Mexican states of Yucatan and Tobasco.
What Does It Taste Like?
Hoja santa has a slight pepper aroma and flavor along with anise, eucalyptus, and nutmeg notes. There are also hints of mint and tarragon, and a strong sassafras aroma and flavor.
Hoja santa's complexity of flavor cannot be reproduced with any other herb, but a somewhat similar flavoring can be accomplished by using feathery fennel leaves, which also have an aromatic licorice taste.
Cooking With Hoja Santa
This herb is most often used fresh and usually cooked; the leaves remain green and retain their flavor when heated, and the veins are too tough to be eaten raw. The dried leaves can also be used as a seasoning, though fresh hoja santa is much more flavorful and preferred for most uses. Chopped hoja santa is incorporated in a wide variety of Mexican stews and sauces, and is occasionally cut into very fine strips to be used as a condiment for soups and egg dishes.
Fresh hoja santa leaves are also used in place of corn husks when making tamales, to enclose and add flavor to artisanal cheeses, and when wrapping meats and fish for steaming or baking. To use hoja leaves as a wrapper, the leaves should be rinsed well and sliced along both sides of the central vein. The resulting two lobes are then wrapped around the food and either discarded or eaten along with the filling.
Recipes With Hoja Santa
Hoja santa is a common ingredient in Oaxacan mole amarillo or mole verde (yellow and green moles), in barbacoa preparations, and fish in Veracruz sauce. Add fresh hoja santa to a variety of Mexican recipes, or use in place of banana leaves or corn husks in tamales.
Where to Buy Hoja Santa
Hoja Santa is still a bit difficult to find in the United States, although that is slowly changing. It most likely will not be available in a major grocery store chain; if near a Latin American community, the local markets may have some in stock. Dried hoja santa as well as whole plants and seeds can be found online. Hoja santa is easy to grow in temperate areas and is such a fast-growing and abundant plant that it is sometimes considered an invasive weed.
Fresh hoja santa leaves can be kept in the refrigerator for up to one week placed flat in a single layer between paper towels and sealed in a zip-top bag. They can also be frozen for year-round use. Before freezing, the leaves should be laid flat between sheets of parchment paper and put in a zip-top bag. Store dried hoja santa leaves in a cool, dry place for several months.
Health Benefits of Hoja Santa
In the language spoken by the Aztecs, Nahuatl, hoja santa is known as tlanepa or tlanepaquelite, which means “aromatic herbal medicine.” This speaks to its use, mainly within communities of Mexican indigenous peoples, for treating any number of conditions, ranging from a cough to rheumatism to female complaints. However, because the herb contains the essential oil safrole, there has been some question as to hoja santa's safety, as the oil has been proven to cause cancer in animal studies. Although there is no proof of this in humans, the ingredient safrole has been banned by the FDA (mainly when making root beer). Regardless, it is recommended to consume hoja santa in small amounts.