What is considered tasty in one culture may be regarded as disgusting in another. Further, perceptions differ regarding what is nourishing or toxic–or what is a vegetable, what a dessert ingredient. North of the border, squash is a vegetable; to the south, it’s dessert.
Here is another example. In Mexico, piper auritum is a popular herb for cooking (guisando) whereas in the U.S. it is today virtually unknown. In the state of Veracruz, piper auritum is usually called acuyo, although in other parts of Mexico it is called hoja santa, Its aromatic leaves are very popular for flavoring fish, barbecued beef, and tamales. I have a neighbor who even puts it into the tamales that she makes with mole. It took me a while to identify this plant in the wild, although once I discovered it, I realized it grew everywhere. It is recognizable by its heart-shaped velvety leaves. Although it sometimes reaches heights of more than six feet, even a small plant will soon produce sufficiently large leaves for cooking and even wrapping tamal-style.
After acquiring this basic knowledge of acuyo—which I had never tasted in central Mexico–I still had a couple of things to learn. One was that this herb is believed to have medicinal properties. One afternoon on the way to the Humanities School, I passed the lodgings of a student who was leaning on the red tile roof of his room with a leaf clapped against his cheek. When I asked him what the trouble was, he said that he had a toothache and was trying to calm it with some tlanepa. So that is how I learned the nahuatl name for the plant.
Acuyo has some English names, too, none of which I was familiar with. Not surprising, because if they had ever had acuyo in any kitchen I visited, I would surely have remembered the pungent odor! Most of the English names refer to a flavor which approximates that of acuyo. Some names used are pepperleaf (for those who find similarity with peppermint), anisillo (sort of a stab in the dark, not very similar I think) and root beer (which is probably the closest, because root beer comes from sassafras, and both sassafras and acuyo contain safrole).
Once I had managed to identify the piper auritum plant, and picked an uncooked leaf for the first time, I suddenly realized that the scent was totally familiar to me once isolated from other aromas. I eagerly double-checked my perception with each hapless American visitor who came my way. Pulling a leaf off a plant, I would crush it and then stick it under the nose of anyone I detected as my contemporary: Smell this! Invariably, their eyes would widen and they would exclaim: Gumdrops! It’s like the gumdrops I used to eat when I was a kid!
My first thought on the current unavailability of piper auritum-flavor gumdrops was that, like the old-fashioned flavors of cinnamon, clove, anise, violet and wintergreen, it had simply gone out of fashion. But further research revealed other reasons for its being withdrawn from the market. On one hand, it is sometimes confused with another plant of the same family known as kava-kava. The similarity is sufficient to merit yet another name for acuyo: false kava-kava. Authentic kava-kava, from Micronesia, is sometimes described as a mildly intoxicating substance of social use, and as a result it is prohibited in certain countries. On the other hand, studies have shown acuyo to be toxic in rats, and on this basis its use in food has been prohibited in the US.
One Mexican cook assured me that although you can use acuyo in food for flavoring, it is unwise to chew the leaves themselves. Most Mexicans, though, seem unconvinced, as the following uses of acuyo are mentioned in Wikipedia, and several of them personally known to me. I am familiar with acuyo as a blenderized ingredient in mole verde (in the regional version, which is thick and dark, with three or four types of green vegetables). Uses that were new to me include flavoring soups, eggs and—surprisingly—chocolate. It can be used for tea, and for a liquor called Verdín as well.
It’s natural range is from Mexico to northern South America. It has been introduced to Florida and Cuba, and a few more distant places. There, it is a matter of concern because it is considered to be an invasive plant. Invasive, but delicious! Personally, I’m going to try it in some homemade gumdrops.
Image courtesy of [Serge Bertasius Photography] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net