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Mexican Pepperleaf (Piper auritum Kunth)

Synonyms

botanicalPiper sanctum
DanishMexikansk Peber-blad
EnglishSacred pepper, Root beer plant, Eared pepper
FrenchPoivre mexicain
GermanMexicanischer Blattpfeffer, Geöhrter Pfeffer, Ohrenpfeffer
HungarianMexikói borslevél
LithuanianAusytasis pipiras
RussianМексиканский перечный лист
Meksikanski perechnyi list
SpanishHoja santa, Yerba santa, Acuyo, Anisillo
Piper auritum: Mexican pepper leaf (acuyo)
Mexican pepper leaf
Used plant part

Fresh leaves. They can grow to sizes of 30 cm and more.

Since dried or fresh leaves are hard to get outside of tropical México, cooks often will need a substitute for Mexican pepper­leaves. The best option is to grow the plant, which turns out rather decorative and surprisingly robust.

The canonical substitute for pepper leaves that is widely used even in México are avocado leaves, but only Mexican avocado types (Persea drimy­folia) have scented foliage; avocados from other regions are mostly Persea americana with insipid leaves.

Curiously, many Mexican cookbooks targeted to an English audience suggest this substitution and argue with the potentil toxicity of pepper leaves. Indeed, their safrole content is rather high and not completely without risk, although Mexicans don’t care much about it. Yet avocado leaves contain exactly the same chemical, and thus offer no health advantage: If they are as fragrant as the authentic pepper leaves, then they are as toxic, too.

Mexican tarra­gon or even ordinary French tar­ra­gon will work well as substitutes in recipes that use puréed leaves, but will of course fail for recipes that use Mexican pepper-leaves as wrappers for fish, poultry or tamales; in the latter case, Thai basil (horapha type) can be tried, although those leaves are much smaller.

Piper auritum: Hoja santa shrub
Shrub of Mexican Pepper
Piper auritum: Mexican pepper leaf (hoja santa), plants with leaves
Mexican pepper leaf plant
Plant family

Piperaceae (pepper family)

Sensory quality

Aromatic and pleasant, loosely re­minis­cent to anise, nutmeg and black pepper. The flavour is strongest in the young stems and veins, which have additionally a pleasant warming pungency. See also cicely on the topic of anise fragrance.

Main constituents

The essential oil from the leaves (0.2%) is rich in safrole (up to 80%), a substance with pleasant odour. Furthermore, a large number of mono- and sesquiterpenoids have been found.

See sassafras a­bout the po­ten­tial health hazards of safrole. Besides in P. auritum, safrole ap­pears in several other neo­tropic pepper species. At least one of them, Piper hispidi­nervium (syn. P. frangua­num), is cur­rently grown in Brazil for extrac­tion of safrole (pimenta longa). Black pepper contains only traces of this toxic substance.

Origin

Tropic Mesoamerica (Southern México, Guatemala, Panamá, Northern Colombia).

Piper auritum: Hoja Santa twig with inflorescence
Twig with flowers
Piper auritum: Hoja Santa (acuyo)
Mexican pepperleaf (hoja santa), plant with flower
Etymology

See pepper. The species name auritus derives from Latin auris ear and means (long)-eared, referring to the leaves’ shape.

The (rare) English term eared pepper is open to mis­under­standig, because English ear has two distinct meanings organ for hearing and inflores­cence/infrutes­cence of various plants, particularly cereals. The two are actually chance homonyms and derive from dif­ferent Proto-Indo–European roots: H₂EUS ear (for hearing) (cf. aural), but H₂EḰ sharp, pointed (cf. acute or acid).

In the case of Mexican pepper, actually both inter­preta­tions would make sense: The inflores­cence con­forms to the defini­tion of ear (it is compact along one stem), and the leaves blades have two large lobes directed back­wards which is com­monly refer­red to as eared (thus, all heart-shaped leaves are eared). As can be seen from the Latin species epithet auritum, the latter meaning is the intended one.

I cannot explain the Spanish name hoja santa sacred leaf; maybe this hints at cultic use of this plant in Aztec rituals. The English name root beer plant is motivated by the olfactory similarity to sassafras, which is used to prepare the US softdrink root beer.

Selected Links

Pacific Islands Ecosystems at Risk: Eared Pepper Sorting Piper names (www.plantnames.unimelb.edu.au) Recipe: Mole Verde (groups.yahoo.com) Recipe: Mole Verde con Pollo (The Mole Page, www.ramekins.com) Recipe: Mole Verde de Oaxaca (The Mole Page, www.ramekins.com) Safrole from plants (erowid.org)


Piper auritum: Flower of hoja santa (acuyo)
Erect, fully opened inflorescence of Mexican Pepper
Piper auritum: Flower of hoja santa
Branch with flowers
Piper auritum: Immature flowering spikes of Mexican pepper leaf
Two young flower spikes
Mexican pepper leaves are, unfortunately, one of those spices that are hardly ever available outside their region of origin.

The spice is much used in the cuisines of tropical México. The leaves are a fragrant decoration or can be wrapped around some stuffing and steamed, baked or broiled. A famous recipe from the Veracruz province (where the spice is particularly popular) is Pescado en Hoja Santa, fish wrapped in pepper leaves, baked and served with a spicy tomato sauce. In Central México, pepper leaves are used to flavour chocolate drinks (Aztecs’ chocolate, see Vanilla).

Last, Mexican pepperleaves are an essential ingredient for mole verde, one of the famous seven sauces of Oaxaca (los siete moles, see paprika about mole in general and sesame about mole Poblano).

Mole verde dif­fers from other kinds of mole by being composed mostly of fresh herbs; it does not contain any ground nuts or seeds (there are, however, versions that contain pumpkin seeds both for flavour and for a deep green colour). As other moles, it is made of several spices (cloves, cumin, green jalapeño- or serrano-chiles, garlic), herbs (thyme, marjoram, parsley) and tomatillos, which are boiled in chicken stock and then puréed; the liquid is then thickened with masa harina (corn flour) and seasoned with ground pepper leaves and, if desired, a couple of sprigs of epazote. Mole verde goes well to poultry; it tastes best when fresh, unlike other moles.

Two Asiatic relatives of Mexican Pepper also have fragrant leaves and find some culinary use. The first is betel pepper (Piper betle) whose large, astringent leaves are employed all over South and South East Asia for the famous betel bit; I do not know of any other use. The smaller and milder leaves of Piper sarmentosum are known in Thailand as cha phlu [ช้าพลู] and in Vietnam as la lot [lá lốt]; they are commonly used as wrappers for small bits of steamed meat or vegetables.



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