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Ask Zarela: Hoja Santa (Piper sanctum or Piper auritum)

Categories: Ask Zarela,Ingredients


Photo by Lorri Allen

Hi Zarela. I’ve got a plant that has taken over my garden and was wondering how to use it in cooking. It’s a Hoja Santa plant and the leaves are huge and beautiful dark green. I was going to pull it up and then found out its good for cooking. How would you use it in a recipe? And what does it taste like?


What a great question you have posed, Lorri!  Hoja santa is one of my favorite  herbs most used in the cooking of Oaxaca and Veracruz, two of my culinary destinations.  In fact, I have written a book on each of those two states where you will find may recipes: The Food and Life of Oaxaca (Macmillan 1992) and Zarela’s Veracruz (Houghton Mifflin 2001.)  There are three recipes posted on this web site but first a little background.

I have been trying to bring true Mexican flavors to the U.S. since I first went into the restaurant business in the city in 1984 and have had many ups and downs with crucial ingredients.  At times this essential herb (Piper auritum and P. sanctum) has been difficult to find in the fresh rather than dried state.  Now its importance is being recognized and the fresh herb is much more available.  It is as preferable to the dried variety as fresh basil is to dried basil.

The heart-shaped fresh leaves are a beautiful dark green and have a vivid herbal flavor that reminds me a little of anise, though hoja santa is more complex.  The leaves are usually between 6 to 8 inches long, big enough to hold small wrapped packets enclosing pieces of food.  But in addition to being used as wrappers these are often puréed with other ingredients in sauces such as mole verde or an hoja santa pesto, a modern twist.  The brittle dried leaves can be used for the latter purpose but are too fragile for wrappers. Dried hoja santa can be found in most Latin American groceries.  The usual packet, which is 1/8-ounce and contains about 6 dried leaves (often in a fairly crumbled state), is equivalent to about  2 large (8-inch) fresh leaves. Dried hoja santa was used in the Tamal de Cazuela pictured above.

                                                                                                                               Photo by Michael Sofronski.  http://www.michaelsofronski.com