Two leaves that give Oaxacan food its unique taste
Hierba santa also known as hoja santa in other parts of Mexico means sacred herb or leaf and is an essential ingredient in the typical Oaxacan dish mole verde (green mole sauce).
The leaf is large and heart-shaped (up to 30 cm long) and it is easily found in any market in Oaxaca, but also often grows freely in kitchen gardens, ready to be used. In addition to mole verde the sacred leaf is used in mole amarillo (yellow mole sauce), empanadas, tamales, and to season chicken broth. As Wikipedia explains, “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”. This leaf loses most of its flavour when dried so, unfortunately, I have not found a way to use it in my cooking in Canada.
This photo shows las calendas, an appetizer served at the restaurant La Biznaga. Quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), flor de calabaza (squash blossom) and chile poblano (poblano peppers) are wrapped in giant hierba santa leaves and served with black beans, fresh cheese and cream. More than once I was unable to finish all three by myself, so it is best as a sharing plate because it is so rich and filling!
Here is a video that shows how the hierba santa is used to make mole verde:
Hoja de aguacate
Avocados are native to Mexico, and the word aguacate comes from the Nahuatl word āhuacatl. Hoja de aguacate (avocado leaf) is used commonly in Oaxaca to season frijoles and salsa chintextle. I often use it in vegetable soups to give them more body and flavour. The leaf is not generally consumed (unless blended) but is used as you would use bay leaves – simmered and then removed before eating, which makes sense because the avocado tree and the bay laurel are in the same family. The avocado leaf’s flavour increases when dried and it is something that I use frequently in my cooking here in Canada.