Last Chance Foods: The Growing Popularity of Papalo

Papalo may be a relatively unknown herb in the Northeast, but it is such a part of everyday food in the region around Puebla, Mexico, that many families and restaurants keep a bouquet of it on the table. That way people can add the fresh herb to their food as desired.

Papalo, which grows wild in Mexico, has been making its way north in recent years, thanks in part to immigrant farmers who cultivate it here. Michelle Hughes is the director of GrowNYC’s New Farmer Development Project (NFDP), which supports and helps educate immigrants with agricultural backgrounds on how to start farming in the New York region. She works with several farmers who grow the herb and notes that it’s increasingly popular at area farmers' markets.

This pungent herb is related to cilantro and it’s been described as having a taste that’s a cross between cilantro, argula and mint — though, in reality, its flavor is unique. “Papalo” is a name derived from the word “butterfly” in the Nahuatl dialect of Central Mexico. Hughes notes that the plant’s leaves are shaped like butterfly wings.

Crops of papalo did not fare well in the recent deluge of rain that followed a drenching delivered by tropical storms.

“It’s really sensitive to cold, as well, and so a lot of it was lost,” said Hughes (pictured). “And so it is a lot less available in the markets now.”

Usually, markets in neighborhoods with large Hispanic communites, like Poe Park and Sunset Park, carry papalo.

“A lot of people in other parts of Mexico don’t use it and a lot of Mexican immigrants in New York City aren’t familiar with it,” she said, adding that more and more people are learning about papalo and asking for it at markets. “It has a range from Texas, New Mexico, all the way down to South America. And people in Bolivia actually use it as well.”

Papalo is usually used raw, as a garnish on top of food.

“Papalo is originally the herb that was used in guacamole and when you can’t find it, cilantro sort of is the backup,” said Hughes.

She notes that papalo is a crucial ingredient in cemitas, which are popular Mexican sandwiches.

Try the New Development Farmers Project’s recipe for cemitas below.

Cemitas (Mexican sandwiches)
by GrowNYC's New Farmer Development Project

  • Papalo leaves, stems removed
  • Avocado, sliced
  • Jalapeños, fresh or canned, sliced
  • Queso de hebra or string cheese, pulled into shreds
  • Lettuce
  • Tomato, sliced
  • Onion, thinly sliced
  • Cemita Sesame bread (a special roll from Puebla available from bakeries around 104th St in Manhattan)

For milanesa:

  • 1 whole chicken breast or 2 lb. chuck roast or rib eye, trimmed
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups fresh breadcrumbs (from 8 slices firm white sandwich bread)
  • 8 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Gently pound cutlets to 1/8-inch thickness between 2 sheets of plastic wrap with flat side of meat pounder or with rolling pin. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper.

Beat together eggs and garlic in large shallow bowl. Place breadcrumbs in another large shallow bowl. Dip meat, 1 piece at a time, in egg mixture, letting excess drip off. Dredge in bread crumbs, pressing to coat completely. Repeat with remaining pieces of meat.

Heat butter and 2 tablespoons oil in large heavy skillet over moderately high heat, until foam subsides. Sauté meat in 2 batches (without crowding) until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined platter and keep warm.

Assemble sandwich with remaining ingredients to taste. Remember, it’s not a Cemita without papalo!