By Julie Etra
Looking around town and surrounding communities outside of Huatulco proper, three plant species appear in many residential landscapes, and they are commonly used in local cooking.
Hoja santa or Hierba santa (literally translated as holy leaf, holy herb), is broad-leaved, aromatic and heart shaped herbaceous native plant. The scientific name is Piper sanctum, family Piperaceae and it is found throughout tropical Mesoamerica, and in Mexico occurring in in Veracruz, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Morelos, etc. It is an essential ingredient in the famous green mole of Oaxaca. It goes by numerous other common names such as Tlanepaquelite, Acuyo, Hoja de Anis, Momo, and X-mak-ulam (Mayan). Its flavor is complex and has been compared to licorice (hence the reference to anis), eucalyptus, sassafras (root beer), nutmeg, mint, tarragon, and black pepper, or a bit sweet with a spicy bite. Leaves are used in the preparation of tamales, with the meat or fish wrapped in the leaves. It is also chopped and used as a seasoning in soups or stews such as pozole. It also has medicinal properties, and a distillation or tincture has been used as an anesthetic, and for the treatment of asthma and bronchitis. The leaves contain safrole (also found in sassafras), an essential oil as well as oxalate of potassium.
This is an attractive and robust plant with yellow flowers having the scientific name Crotalaria longirostrata. Also known as Chipilín, but called Chepil in Oaxaca, it is a perennial legume and does not need to be-replanted each year. Chepil is in the Pea family and is native to Mexico and Central America. Other common names include Chepilin, Cascabel de vibora, Garbancillo, Tronador, and in English as Longbeak Rattlebox. The reference to rattles and rattlesnakes is due to the fact that upon maturity the seeds inside the fruit become detached and produce a rattling sound when shaken. Derived from the Greek word crotalus, the name of the genus also means castanet.
It ‘fixes’ or make its own nitrogen, like all members of the pea family, through the symbiotic association with bacteria, which form nodules on the roots. They are tough plants that do not require nitrogen fertilization, and can be used as a cover crop to improve soil fertility. The leaves are high in iron, calcium, and beta-carotene. They can be boiled and served green, or more commonly dried and used as an herb. In Oaxaca dried chepil is sprinkled and incorporated into the masa, or corn dough, when making chepil tamales. Following steaming, the chepil tamales are served with a salsa prepared from tomatoes, onions, garlic, and coastal chilies. It is also used as a seasoning in rice dishes, stir-fry, dumplings, and soups. It is however, a proliferous seed producer and can be invasive in other parts of the world.
Solanum nigrum, locally known as Bi-tache, is in good company as it occurs in the Solanaceae (nightshade) family along with chilies, tomatoes, and potatoes, all native to Mesoamerica. It has numerous common names including Tojonchichi (Oaxaca), Tonchichi (Oaxaca) Ixcapul (Puebla), Pahal-kan (Yucatan), ,and Hierba mora. This plant, however, is introduced from Eurasia but is commonly found throughout the world. In fact, it is among the most widely used and well-documented wild foods around the globe, rivaled only by a few other ubiquitous weeds such as lamb’s quarters, amaranth, and stinging nettle. The leaves and tender shoots are boiled or sautéed like spinach, and the berries are edible as well, either raw or prepared. It also has medicinal value, The most widespread medicinal use of bi-tache is for dermatological problems, such as rashes and hives in children.
I wrote extensively about this group of plants in the previous issue. Just a reminder that the flower petals are delicious and can be eaten raw, as in a salad. They vaguely remind me of endive.