Papalo: Smells like a skunk, but adds unique flavor

By Catherine Ward

Papalo (Porophyllum ruderale subsp. Macrocephalum) is still a relatively obscure plant to many Americans; however it is slowly gaining popularity in New York kitchens as immigrant farmers increasingly grow the herb and sell it in markets. Papalo is an ancient plant that is found throughout Mexico, the American Southwest and other South American countries. The stems and leaves of papalo were used as a condiment in Mexico before the colonization of the Spanish in the 16th century. Today, papalo is so popular in the state of Puebla, Mexico that people keep a bouquet of the herb on tables so it can be added fresh to dishes as desired. The name papalo is derived from the Nahuatl language and means butterfly, which could be attributed to the butterfly-shaped leaves of the herb.

People living in Mexico, Central, and South America commonly use papalo as medicine for high blood pressure and stomach disorders (Photo credit: Chef Jacques Gautier)

Papalo has a very unique flavor that has been described as tasting like a mixture of cilantro, argula and mint. And some people claim that the herb smells like laundry detergent or soap. The leaves of the plant have oil glands that produce chemicals used to deter insects, which is the reason behind the very distinct smell and flavor of papalo. The plant is often referred to as mampuitu in Spanish, which translates to skunk in honor of its pungent aroma.

The herb is usually eaten raw as a garnish in many central Mexican dishes and is particularly favored on cemitas (a type of Mexican sandwich). Papalo is also believed to have medicinal benefits according to some cultures. People living in Mexico, Central and South America commonly use papalo as medicine for high blood pressure and stomach disorders. In Bolivia, the Chacobo Indians utilized the herb on infected injuries to reduce swelling. The Quechua people consume papalo daily as they believe it reduces high blood pressure and treats liver problems. While Papalo is an interesting herb that is steadily gaining popularity in American cuisine due to its unusual flavor, it remains an important part of people’s daily diets in countries such as Mexico and Bolivia because of its medicinal properties.

Catherine Ward is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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