Food & Drink Hoja santa or diablo?

Like many good herbs, the root beer plant must be eaten in moderation

In the Garden for the Blind at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, there grows a lofty bush with large, velvety, heart shaped leaves. Children like to pet them, pulling off little pieces to smell and chew; root beer-scented, they taste of anise, nutmeg, and black pepper. An herb of many common names, it is sometimes called mexican pepper leaf, yerba santa, acuyo, and makulan. Its scientific name is Piper auritum, a "long-eared" relation to black pepper and kava kava. In San Antonio, you may have heard it referred to as hoja santa, or root beer plant.

The leaves of the hoja santa plant are velvety soft and edible, imparting a fragrant anise, nutmeg, and black pepper flavor to traditional Mexican dishes. It is best freshly plucked from the bush, but is sometimes more easily found in its dry form. Dry hoja santa should be soaked in warm water to refresh its flavor.

"The flower is just a pointy spear, nothing special," says Mary Dunford of Nature's Herb Farm. "But the plants are just beautiful. People here like to grow them for ornamentation and privacy, but in Southern Mexico they use it a lot in cooking."

Hoja santa has been used in Mexican and Central-American cuisine for centuries and is a common ingredient in Oaxacan and Veracruzano dishes. Oaxacan green mole, one of the "seven sauces of Oaxaca," differs from the mole many Americans are familiar with in that it does not include nuts or seeds. Instead it employs masa harina for consistency and fresh herbs for flavor, relying heavily on hoja santa, epazote, and parsley. In Veracruz, fish is wrapped in the broad leaves, baked, and served with a spicy tomato sauce. Although too tough to be used in salads, hoja santa leaves can be chopped and added to sauces or fried for use atop fish or chicken. According to The Big Book of Herbs, by Arthur Tucker and Thomas Debaggio, the herb is used in Panama to attract fish during the dry season, and the meat of those that feed on it is infused with sassafras.

Yet, the authors say they "cannot recommend makulan `hoja santa` in food," because the essential oil of the leaf is 65-77 percent safrole, a carcinogen that the Food and Drug Administration has prohibited in food since 1960.

Not surprisingly, the other place that safrole is found is in the sassafras tree's root bark oil. Prior to the ban, sassafras root bark was a folk remedy for stomachaches, arthritis, and kidney ailments. It was also a popular soap, perfume, and cleaning-supply scent and, of course, sassafras was the flavor in root beer. Today, derivatives of the oil, which is 80-90 percent safrole, are still used for fragrance and as a key ingredient in certain insecticides.

That said, Gayle Engles, educational director at the American Botanical Council, says that while one should heed hoja santa's potential to poison, one needn't forsake it altogether. "As a representative of the Botanical Council, I wouldn't recommend drinking hoja santa tea every day," she says, "but personally, I think it's a matter of moderation. It can't be any worse for you than a Big Mac."

She sites Peterson's A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants, in which authors Steven Foster and James A. Duke, who was the USDA's economic botanist for 30 years, assert that the "safrole in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer."

It is rare to find hoja santa in grocery stores, but whole plants can be purchased at nurseries around town, Dunford's herb farm, and, of course, Liberty Bar where chicken hoja santa is on the menu seven nights a week, and the herb grows profusely on the southern side of the restaurant.

Dunford says the plant likes partial shade and frequent watering, and will thrive in almost any soil as long as it is well-drained. In the late summer months, hoja santa will grow to be up to 10 feet tall, but "if you trim it back, you'll have a bigger, healthier plant," she suggests. In the winter, the foilage will die back while the roots grow, sending out shoots up to 20 feet. If you have a friend with an hoja santa, new plants can be propagated by breaking up the root ball, but be careful. "Once it starts to grow, it'll spread," warns Liberty Bar owner Dwight Hobart. "You could say it's a horizontal version of bamboo - it'll get big and take over."

At Liberty Bar, chicken breasts and ahi tuna steaks are wrapped in hoja santa leaves and grilled. The packet seals in juices and imparts fragrant anise and pepper flavors.

I must admit that it's a favorite of mine and, at the risk of becoming Rappaccini's daughter, I plan to keep eating it - everything in moderation.

By Susan Pagani

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