Piper auritum, also known as hoja santa (Spanish for "sacred leaf"), yerba santa, hierba santa, Mexican pepperleaf, acuyo, tlanepa, anisillo, root beer plant, Vera Cruz pepper and sacred pepper, is an aromatic herb with a heart-shaped, velvety leaf which grows in tropic Mesoamerica.
The leaves can reach up to 30 centimeters (12 in) or more in size. The complex flavor of hoja santa is not so easily described; it has been compared to eucalyptus, licorice, sassafras, anise, nutmeg, mint, tarragon, and black pepper. The flavor is stronger in the young stems and veins.
It is native to the Americas, from northern South America to Mexico, and is also cultivated in southeast Florida and California.
It is often used in Mexican cuisine in tamales, fish or meat wrapped in its fragrant leaves for cooking, and as an essential ingredient in mole verde, a green sauce originally from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. It is also used to flavor eggs and soups like pozole. In Central Mexico, it is used to flavor chocolate drinks. In southeastern Mexico, a green liquor called 'verdín is made from hoja santa. It is also used for tea. In some regions of Mexico, goat cheese is wrapped in hoja santa leaves and imbued with its flavor.
While typically used fresh, it is also used dried, although the drying process removes much of the flavor and makes the leaf too brittle to be used as a wrapper.
The essential oils within the leaf are rich in safrole, a substance also found in sassafras, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras bark along with sassafras oil and safrole as flavoring agents because of their carcinogenic properties and the Council of Europe imposed the same ban in 1974, with the EPA classifying the compound as a group B2 probable human carcinogen. While there are no adequate studies elucidating the relationship between exposure to safrole and human cancers, safrole-DNA adducts, an indicator for safrole-induced carcinogenicity, have been found in tissues from esophageal cancer patients.
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