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The Hoja Santa plant is a large tropical plant that can reach up to six feet in height. It has large, dinner plate-sized, heart-shaped leaves that can reach up to one foot in diameter. The flavor of this perennial herb is complex and offers notes of eucalyptus, licorice, anise, nutmeg, mint, tarragon and black pepper. The main aromatic and flavor profile of Hoja Santa, however, is sassafras. The flavor is most concentrated in the younger Hoja Santa stems and leaves, which are also the most tender. The Hoja Santa plant develops long, white flowers close to the base of the large leaves, that more closely resemble fingers than flowers.
Hoja Santa is available year-round.
Hoja Santa translates to “sacred leaf” and is a tropical plant botanically known as Piper auritum. It is commonly called Root Beer Plant due to an aroma reminiscent of sassafras, which was traditionally used to flavor root beer soda. Hoja Santa is also known as Yerba Santa, Veracruz pepper, and Mexican pepper leaf. The origin of the name ‘sacred’ may come from the ancient use of the plant by the Aztecs during rituals.
Hoja Santa contains an essential oil comprised of safrole, a natural compound that was used to flavor root beer and root beer-flavored confections until it was banned in the 1960s. This natural compound, along with other naturally occurring phytochemicals and substances in Hoja Santa, lends itself to ancient folk remedies still used in Mexico today. The leaf is used as a tonic to aid in digestion and to relieve colic. Hoja Santa has been used to help with respiratory troubles and with apnia.
Hoja Santa is used in both fresh and dried forms. The whole leaf is used for wraps and bundles, however, Hoja Santa is also used as an herb in various applications. Hoja Santa is chopped and added to sauces and soups. It is an essential ingredient in mole verde, a green, herbaceous version of the more commonly known dark sauce. Mole verde is used for enchiladas, and fish and poultry dishes. Its peppery flavor with hints of sassafras compliment egg dishes, soups and stews. Hoja Santa leaves can be chopped, chiffonade, or julienned. The leaf can also be dried, but it loses a bit of its flavor and becomes very brittle. Store fresh leaves in the refrigerator for up to a week before use.
In central Mexico, Hoja Santa leaves are used to flavor a chocolate drink known as “Aztecs chocolate.” In the Mexican states of Tabasco and Yucatan, the leaf is used to make a green liquor called Verdín.
Hoja Santa is native to southern Mexico, Central America, and the northern parts of South America and has been used since the times of the ancient Aztecs. The plant grows best in humid, tropical conditions, though it is able to grow in some warm areas of the southern United States. Hoja Santa is most often available in its native area, though it may be found in specialty stores or from small farms and farmers markets in warmer regions.
Recipes that include Hoja Santa. One is easiest, three is harder.