A common herb found in Belize with large love heart leaves adorned with white candle-like flowers smells deliciously fragrant of anise and black pepper. The taste test was disturbing though, as it immediately numbed my lips and tongue. If the Mayas have been using it for centuries it must be worthy of inclusion in the kitchen so I did some more research to be absolutely sure before experimenting at the stove. There are many different varieties in the piper pepper family and I am told there are more than 20 right around us.
The one I had encountered in Belize was Hoja Santa (Sacred Leaf) Piper Auritum which is said to relieve stress and anxiety much like kava kava. Another Piperaceae family member is Piper Aducum or Matico found all through the Caribbean and tropics. It was discovered that applying the leaves to wounds would stop the bleeding and was used as an antiseptic on ulcers and wounds. I have the belief that many of the piper family have this capability. Other names for Hoja Santa are: Mexican pepper plant; false kava; anisillo or root beer plant.
Yes it really does taste like sassafrass and sarsparilla both used in the creation of root beer. Although not related they all contain safrole. It is used as a flavouring and condiment for soups and eggs. It can be stuffed with chicken, fish or other meats, rolled like enchiladas or used for tamales. There is a goat cheese, which is wrapped in the leaf giving it a distinctive peppery taste. In Mexico there is a green sauce mole verde and a green liquor made from this plant. It can also be used to flavour cocoa and chocolate or dried and made into a tea but best picked straight from the bush. It apparently likes moist soil where it receives the morning sun and is protected from the afternoon heat and winds. If you want to plant it, give it plenty of room to spread as it can become portly as well as stately. – Jenny Wildman.