Cilantro Cousin: Aromatic Papalo Adds Variety to Gardens and Cooking

| December/January 2000

When cilantro has bolted to seed in their gardens, more chefs in search of fresh green flavor are turning to Native American plants from the Porophyllum genus (Compositae, or daisy family). These closely related plants share many similarities, including common names. All are often referred to as papalo (the Nahuatl word for butterfly), papaloquelite (pop-a-low-kah-LEE-tay), or butterfly weed.

With a name like this, it stands to reason that in their native countries, the plants provide nectar to feeding butterflies. Perhaps the butterflies are attracted by the visible oil glands that edge the leaf margins of these tall, strongly scented plants. Their tubular flowers attract bees and other winged pollinators to the garden. But it’s the cilantrolike flavor of the leaves that has set the culinary world astir.

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In October 1999, when Alice Waters, renowned chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, first tasted one variety of papaloquelite, she was ecstatic, demanding to know why she had never experienced it before. She purchased every seed packet available from the Underwood Gardens booth at the Taste of the Midwest Festival, an annual event sponsored by the American Institute of Wine and Food.

Michael Altenberg, chef-owner of Campagnola in Evanston, Illinois, experimented with another variety and pronounced it very compatible with citrus flavors and seafood, and thus very suitable for use in ceviche, a South American cooking method that uses the acidity of lime or lemon juice to cook fresh fish. Vegetarian ceviches are usually made using mild-flavored button mushrooms, but Altenberg says he intends to create a ceviche that includes both papalo and portabella mushrooms.

Porophyllum ruderale is known to English speaking herbalists as poreleaf. Linnaeus first described it in 1753. Botanically, it is now broken into two distinct subspecies that share some of the same ranges.

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