Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What do you know, it's papalo!

There’s a certain scent I associate with Mexico that I’ve always assumed was laundry detergent. It’s overly pungent and heavy, with hints of citrus and mint. It’s the kind of smell that wafts into your nose and lingers there for hours, overpowering anything else with which your olfactory senses come into contact. I’ve smelled it in grocery stores in Guanajuato and outside of domestic kitchens in Mexico City not to mention in some of the Mexican neighborhoods here in NYC. I don’t know why I assumed the smell came from soap, I just did.

Last week, I found myself in Jackson Heights and I stopped into the charming El Sol de Azteca to grab a bite to eat. They had cemitas on the menu—a Pueblan sandwich stuffed with spicy pork, red onions, chipotles, lettuce, avocados and that Mexican string cheese called quesillo all piled high on a sesame seed bun. I’d never had one and was curious how it compared to a torta, another Mexican sandwich. I took a bite and was pleased by the crisp, buttery bun and the spice and juice from the meat and vegetables, but there was a hint of that smell, that funky flavor that I always assumed was detergent. I took the sandwich apart and found an herb. After tasting it, I realized that it was the source of that flavor. That smell wasn’t detergent, it was a plant!

I asked the waitress in my rusty Spanish what was the name of the herb. She smiled and said, “Papalo!” Papalo. Who knew? I finished my sandwich trying to savor this new flavor, but couldn’t quite work my head around the fact that what I always thought was soap was actually an herb. I now understood how those who can’t stand cilantro feel.

After doing some research, I learned that papalo is an ancient plant, found all over Mexico, the American Southwest and parts of South America. The Bolivians swear by it, eating it almost daily as it’s said to possess medicinal qualities such as the ability to lower blood pressure. In Mexico, it’s most prominently used in the state of Puebla, primarily in cemitas. But many restaurants keep vases with bunches of papalo on tables, so patrons can snip and add it to any dish they like. It’s also found in tacos, salads, salsas and guacamole. Yet, as beloved as it may be it’s not for nothing that it’s also known as mampuitu, or skunk.

Papalo is something of an acquired taste and as I hope to spend time in Puebla this spring, I decided I’d better learn to like it. I thought finding it in stores would be easy, but after searching countless places, it wasn’t until I walked into a Bravo Supermarket that I met with success. (These supermarkets are all over NYC and they cater to the Hispanic community. Therefore, if you’re looking for cow hooves, chicken feet, all parts of the pig, cecina, chiles, tortilla presses, etc.—this is the store for you.)

When I walked through the doors, I was blasted by that familiar smell. I followed my nose to the produce section and picked up a bag—one of many on display. I was disappointed, however, as all the papalo for sell appeared to be covered in brown spots. I spoke to a man working in the produce section and asked him if they had fresher papalo in the back. He shook his head and said, “No, but this is very fresh.”

“Are you sure,” I said. “It’s covered in brown spots.”

“Those are the glands that make the smell,” he said.

Who knew that plants had glands? I took my bag of papalo home and tried making different things. I first made a small salad with the leaves, but this was a bit much—a little goes a long way. I then decided to make a salsa verde with tomatillos and avocado. While I’d normally use cilantro, I decided to use papalo instead. It was almost the same as I’m used to, but still a bit strange. So while I’m not quite convinced that I’m a fan of this herb, I did enjoy the salsa. And perhaps, over time, I’ll grow to love papalo as much as I love cilantro. I certainly hope I can learn to at least live with it, as a cemita is one heck of a sandwich and I’d hate to not enjoy eating those as they were meant to be.

Do you have any experience with papalo? What are your thoughts? And have you ever cooked with it?

Salsa Verde with Papalo
Ingredients:
2 cups of chopped tomatillos
1 avocado, peeled and chopped
3 serrano peppers, stems removed and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
Juice from 1/2 lime
2 tablespoons of papao leaves, chopped
Salt to taste

Method:
Throw all ingredients in the blender and mix well.
Makes about 2 cups
Serve over pork, chicken, tacos, beans or with chips.
You can replace papalo with cilantro though I’d use about 1/2 a cup or more of that less-pungent herb instead.

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43 comments:

ann said...

Well I'll be. I know that smell. And yep, I too thought it had to do with soap or detergent or possibly epazote, because, really, even though I know what it is, I could never a. pick it out of an herby lineup or b. really tell you what it's flavor is. Good sleuthing Lisa! You've just helped me decide that since I'm home sick from work today, a nice steaming bowl of Posole is in fact exactly what I'm craving! Thanks :)

Chris said...

Papalo! I've never heard of it, and don't *think* I've encountered it. But now I must start my quest. :)
(I also never got the "cilantro tastes like soap" thing.)

Meg said...

I haven't used it (or even heard of it); keeping some in glass of water on a table so people can just tear some off is both practical and sort of funny; it's a decoration AND a condiment. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Sandy said...

I know exactly the smell you mean, but I never knew what it was! Thanks for letting me know about something new to look for.

PS: Your copyright on the bottom of your page is only till 2007

christine (myplateoryours) said...

I totally love the image of you picking apart that sandwich in search of an elusive flavor. You can always pick a foodie out of the crowd.

Lydia said...

Papalo -- completely new to me. I'm one of those cilantro-tastes-like-soap people, so I don't know how I'll do with this. But we have a pretty good Hispanic market in Providence, so I'm headed there to check it out. Papalo...thanks for letting us know about this.

Texana said...

Yes, the smell--it hits you as you walk into certain Tex-Mex restaurants. I am so glad to learn that it is indeed an herb. I always thought they had some sort of cleaning product that I hoped was not contaminating my food. Thanks for clearing that up. Not sure I like it any better, but it helps me forgive my daughter's aversion to cilantro, which I love.

Saffronchef said...

I've also never heard of papalo, and I consider myself somewhat experienced in the exotic food dept. And I know the smell you mean too. I also thought it was laundry detergent, and it's always made me feel nostalgic when I walked through a Mexican neighborhood. I still think sometimes the smell really is detergent, but now that I know of this herb, I will see if I can distinguish between the two. This is why I love your blog. Thanks for the great story!

Homesick Houstonian said...

interesting. I've been meaning to try a cemita from Tulcingo del Valle for a while now. I hope they do it with papalo too, I'd love to find out about this herb.

Homesick Texan said...

Ann--Yea! Someone knows what I'm talking about! I hope you feel better soon--how do you make your posole?

Chris--It's a very specific smell, so you'll know it when you find it.

Meg--I think it's a terrific idea, and wish more restaurants would do that with fresh herbs.

Sandy--Thanks for the heads up on the copyright--it's fixed now. And I'm glad someone else knows what I'm talking about. It's a very distinctive smell indeed!

Christine--I think the waitress thought I was a bit nuts when I pulled the papalo out of the sandwich and asked her what it was. But I'm so happy to have the mystery solved!

Lydia--If you try it, let me know what you think.

Texana--Isn't it funny that all of us thought it was soap? I wonder if those who think cilantro tastes like soap have the opposite experience with papalo?

Saffronchef--Once you know it's an herb, the smell becomes more organic and less chemical, though I'm still getting used to it.

Homesick Houstonian--From what I understand, you can't make a cemita without the papalo. Besides the sesame seed bun it's the crucial ingredient.

Sandi @the WhistleStop Cafe said...

I am glad you stopped in at the cafe~ It is easy to get lost in the bloggy world.
I thought of you when I posted my sweet heat jalapenos, right up your alley.
We have a local mexican grocery store... won't they be impressed when I come in asking for papalo.

Sorina said...

This looks so delicious. I am looking forward more posts from you!

Marco said...

I had a very good cemitas at Tulcingo del Valle (10th & 46th) in October. It had papalo on it. I had to ask the watitress what it was. I liked it. Though I like cilantro more.

Homesick Texan said...

Sandi--Thanks for stopping by as well! And yep, I bet they'll be very impressed when you ask for papalo!

Sorina--Thank you!

Marco--Good to know! I'll have to head up there this weekend and grab one.

Lyra said...

Papalo-so thats what that smell is! Not many Mexicans around DC area, so I don't know that I will find it here. I wanted to say that I really like your photo of the salsa with the slightly crumbled leaves on top. Very nice:)

Meeta said...

Never tried the herb before - maybe I did and did not realize it. You've really got me curious now. Hmmmn!

Mercedes said...

Wow, I've never heard of it, but your description reminds me of drinking yerba mate or the herb rue, things that are very much an acquired taste. I saw on Wikipedia that it's also called "Bolivian coriander."

mSjEnA said...

love your photos !

Julie said...

On the one hand it's interesting to know that there's an herb commonly used in Mexican cooking which I've never heard of. On the other hand, the fact that its smell is confused with laundry detergent or cleaning agents makes me not all that sure I'm interested in becoming familiar with it. :)

Cynthia said...

I've never heard of it before. I totally admire your spirit of trying it. A true foodie.

Christina said...

I smell it around here in shops and holes-in-the-wall. I've never cooked with it, but now I'm curious to try doing something with it, or at least try growing it. I'm fascinated by the fact that you can see the scent glands on it.

Great post, as always.

ann said...

Um... I call an expert and have them deliver it ;-)

Homesick Texan said...

Lyra--Thanks! And you might find it--at least in the summer. I read somewhere that more American farmers are growing it and selling it at farmers' markets.

Meeta--It's pretty distinctive, so once it's been identified you'll never forget it.

Mercedes--I had some friends that lived in Chile for a while, and they came back addicted to yerba mate. So I reckon once you acquire the taste, you can't live without it!

MsJena--Why thank you!

Julie--Ha! It's not all that bad, really, it just takes some time to get used to it!

Cynthia--That's what life's all about--trying new things!

Christina--Yeah, the glands are bizarre, I'd never seen anything like that before.

Ann--Ha! Sounds like the perfect recipe for when you're not feeling well--let someone else cook for you.

SwedenExTex said...

I never thought of making nachos with just cheddar cheese and a jalapeno atop each one. And from scratch even! (the tortilla chips). I will try it this weekend, despite we have no cheddar and I must use Gouda. I must admit I like Chili's nachos because they make them individually and they do use a bit of refried beans (my fave style). The bad-me goes nuts for nachos with Ranch Style beans with jalapeno, topped with cubes of Velveeta! I can't help myself, people! But I will try your recipe for Superbowl weekend for these buddies who put cucumbers and pineapple on theirs, with no idea what pinto beans/refried beans even ARE! Thanks girl!!

Veronica said...

My uncle took my sister and I to this restaurant by the side of the road between Mexico City and Poza Rica, Veracruz.
It was incredible and all their dishes had this weird herb that tasted almost like basil or cilantro. I asked the waitress what it was. She didn't say 'papalo' but she called it something else, and gave me a leaf. I managed to take it with me back to the states.
Since then I've been trying to find that herb. I saw this up on tastespotting and immediately recognized the shape of the leaf. Thank you so much for putting up this post! :)

seventh sister said...

Now I have to get some seeds and try it. I might be able to buy some at Fiesta but I am not sure I would knowit if I saw it.

Marghie said...

I read an article in the NY Times last week about great sandwiches and came upon the description of a cemita available in Port Chester, NY, which is right near my temporary home. Yesterday I tried it. Not only did I love the sandwich, but now I've spent far too much time looking up papolo to find out everything I could about it. Here's the Latin name - Porophyllum ruderale - of the plant that was in in my sandwich. Apparently there is also a Porophyllum tagetoides that is similar, but I think the leaves are too narrow to be what I had in my lunch.

I remember the first time I grew cilantro in my garden.... I just hated it. I could smell it everywhere in the garden, on my clothes, on my hands, I thought it smelled like soap only worse and I swore I'd never grow it again. But something funny happened; I grew to love it and started wanting it in everything. I am thrilled to find this new herb that has a similar flavor. I'm going to check out the grocery stores in Port Chester next, to see if I can find both varieties so I can compare.

Deborah said...

I followed the same N.Y. Times article to Kiosko in Port Chester and immediately fell in love with their cemita al pastor. None of the people working there could tell me the English name for papalo but who cares? I'm looking forward to experimenting with it. Looking forward to more more good recipes and restaurant hints, too.

annie said...

My friend made a pesto of papalo, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil and we used it as a salad dressing on red leaf lettuce, wild arugula, and raw pepitas. Weird and wonderful. I couldn't get enough of it!

Anonymous said...

well i was braught up eating papalo! at first i didn't quite like the taste or smell but after i got older, i learned to enjoy and savor every bite!... i wouldn't recommend mixing it with salsa.. i would rather recommend you eating it with different kinds of meat. i find it to bring out the flavors in meats.. and maybe that's why they make cemitas with papalo. the way i enjoy eating this delicious plant is with a carne asada taco!

Anonymous said...

i also grow up with this uniqiue herb... i love the smell and the taste....and w/ meat omg delicious. It is strong so little of papalo is good. I haven't eaten papalo in a while and i would love to try it again...but i dont think i will find it up here in canada.

agnes said...

My sister, who's always into anything new (and often weird) left a small pot of seedlings on the back porch the other day on her way back to Corpus Christi......so, while I didn't COMPLETELY look a gift horse in the mouth, I was skeptical - and for days left it right where she set it ... She later emailed to tell me it's papalo, so here I am researching.....thanks for all the info... I never made the soap connection with cilantro -stink bug is what I think of! Strange, isn't it, that dispite these peculiar associations we can go on and learn to like something.

rah said...

I just had a cemitas for the first time at Tacos Matamoros in Sunset Park on Saturday. I was convinced that the herb in the sandwich was parsley, but a friend said the sandwich tasted like soap to her. Some sleuthing led me to your blog post, thanks for the info!

Anonymous said...

I am having papalo right now, but for those beginners i say you have to build up to the taste of this plant in order to enjoy truly. I enjoy this plant with pupusas or sopes. I am from acapulco,guerrero and this plant is very known in my native country

Anonymous said...

mmmmmm PAPALO.I grew up with this unique plant.This plant looks alot like ravalo, but it has a much pungent flavor. This herb is really special because you cannot eat it with just anything.I really love the taste of this herb it reminds me of my hometown.I enjoy eating this plant with bistec and also with sopes!!

Super Chencha said...

I love papalo! I grew up with it because my family loves it. My family is from a little village in Oaxaca and the people there really enjoy it. And yes it is an acquired taste for many people. I remember trying it for the very first time at the age of four and I actually loved the the taste! (I know it's a little strange for a little girl).

Every summer my father plants some seeds in our summer garden and we usually eat it every day for lunch and dinner. We place the papalo in a vase filled with water. During our meals we usually just grab a stem and eat the leaves. Rarely to we use it as an ingredient. Sometimes I will just eat the herb by itself.

Agata said...

Wow, that hit me like a lighting!! I always thought that was detergent, ALWAAYS!!! Thank you for clearing it up for me! :) Can't wait to taste it with my new found knowledge ;)

Anonymous said...

My husband is mexican and he loves papalo. I live in Baltimore and its a little harder to find and it goes bad fast. He eats it like it is though. Just picks it off the rama and eats it. Cant really stand it my self. But there is some smells that remind me of mexico. some are soap. Fabuloso and suvitel are my favorites but also the smell of something burning reminds me of mexico because every where you go down there the people are burning their trash and/or dead grass.
sincerly AShley

Anonymous said...

i was born is pasadena, california but since kid my mom took me to mexico city n i grew up there since i was 11 years old, spanish is my first language, and mexican food my culture.. the mexican food here in america is totally different than the real mexican food from mexico.. here they used more quemicals n stuffs to the food than mexico is mostly natural.. papalo is my favorite herb, even that i plant it in my backyard.. so when ever i want sum papalo i just go to my backyard ..
every time when i eat papalo it reminds me my child hood, just like the movie ratatouille when the inspector eats the ratatouille plate n his child hood comes to his mind... ! every time i smell papalo all those child memories comes to me n put a smile in my face.. papalo is the most exotic herb u could ever try... !,

i found this article, when i was eating papalo n decide to google it and c what does other people thinks about it..
i would totally recomended to any one that havent try it..

Anonymous said...

We live in Wisconsin and have grown papalo for about 5 years. It is a high point of the summer when it is ready to pick. When the cilantro goes to seed thats when we switch to papalo and keep using it until frost takes it out. Tomorrow we may have a frost so I will try to make a pesto of the three plants that we have so as to have some of that flavor all winter.

gloria morales tapia said...

I went to Hidalgo Mexico and ate papalo for the first time 7 years ago.. Now I look for it every chance i get.. I live in Georgia and its hard to find but I just Love it.. It is so delicious to me, the aroma and flavor are just grand...

Anonymous said...

I've had Tortas all my life. There is a Cemita lunch truck by mi house and I always have a torta or burrito. After talking to the cook and learning the ingredients that go in a cemita and comparing it to a Torta I finally decided to try a cemita. Took it home opened it...it looked delicious(Had the carnitas/pork). Took a bite and I just couldn't figuere out what that taste was...as I never had it. Just to say, I couldn't finish my cemita. This is what let me to this site and now I know what ingredient the cook left out, (Sneeky guy). lol. Besides the Papalo, the cemita was good, but couldn't enjoy it due to the taste I already had of the papalo. I guess next time I will order it with out the papalo. J.R. S.Cali

Anonymous said...

I first had it this year. One of our hands was growing it in a pot in our barn. I smelled it immediately and he plucked some leaves and gave me one. At first I did not like it. Then I brought some home and started adding it to our nightly salads and is not addicted to it. Yes a little goes a long way. He gave me some seeds and I planted it in a pot in my back yard and it is in full bloom.

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