There aren’t many ingredients you would associate with exactly one restaurant—helium with Alinea, I guess, and if I were to mention the Mexican herb-slash-weed papalo, Porophyllum ruderale, you might say “Isn’t that the thing they put on the sandwiches at Cemitas Puebla in the summer?” Yes it is, when they can get it at all (more on that in a minute). It’s a flat leaf, about three inches wide (at least that’s how big it is at present in one of my Earthboxes), with a medicinal-herbal flavor that invites not-that-close comparison to basil or cilantro, plus a bit of the mouth-coating effect of coriander, or of taking a big swig of after-shave. I saw some earlier this summer at the Green City Market—a seedling, for growing yourself. Having a tendency to buy things without thinking about their practical use, I grabbed one and planted it.
It’s now about two and a half feet high, leaves coming out of a thick, fibrous stalk. That stalk, and the speed with which it grew into an unwieldy Triffid towering over the basil and kale in the box, strongly suggest that papalo belongs on the far side of the imaginary line dividing “crops” from “weeds.” The question is, what to do with it? I could make about 60 cemitas to use it up, I guess, but the odds of that seem unlikely. Is there anything else to be done with papalo? I decided to ask the only person I knew of who actually uses it—Tony Anteliz, owner of Cemitas Puebla.
I stopped by the Fulton Market location—currently the only one—after a Key Ingredient shoot (which, ironically, also involved a mystery plant that Tim Graham of Travelle was growing in his own garden). I knew that Tony often brought back foodstuffs from Mexico, and I thought papalo was one of them, but he explained that it doesn’t last very long once picked, and so he gets it from a much closer source—when, that is, he can get it at all.
“My mom and dad do me a favor and lay it in the ground, early to mid April,” he explained. “Before 2014, second week of June, I’d have it every week. Good healthy leaves. But because summer has started so late the last couple of years—this year, I kid you not, they did the same thing as every year and it wasn’t ready until mid-July, and it’s small. It’s not just them—my mom’s my primary papalo source, but there are a couple of local grocery stores in her area that have it as well, they get it from local people who grow it in their yards, and they were out of it as well.”
So it’s not something that’s widely used in Mexican dishes? I asked. “No, no. A little more now, but not all Mexican people know about it. There are only certain states where they know what papalo is,” he explained. “The thing about papalo is, you can’t get it from Mexico. Cilantro you can keep in your fridge for a week, and you’re good, but papalo, if it’s exposed to cold for too long, it turns black,” he said. He talked to a hydroponic farm on the west side about growing it, but it never happened. So he visits his mom’s and cuts some once a week, but typically only has it on hand for about five days before it’s gone.
It’s traditional on cemitas in Puebla—along with chipotle adobo, the medicinal herb adds complexity to the profile of what starts as a pretty plain sandwich—and when the restaurant started on west North Avenue, it was standard on every sandwich. But as the restaurant was discovered by foodies (and then by Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), it became clear that not all customers wanted that herbal-medicinal taste. “The papalo, it’s about 50-50. There are people who walk in and go, ‘Oh, good, you have it,’ and there are people who are like, ‘Oh, it’s here again?’ It’s definitely an acquired taste—kind of soapy, kind of soury, kind of pungent.”
I asked him if there was any use for it besides putting it on your cemita. He remembered back in Mexico, his dad getting it from a neighbor and cooking it in beans. “You’d go in the house and the smell would smack you in the face,” he said. “So that was our first experience with it. The old man would put it in a quesadilla, but he’s a weird eater. When I was older, a teenager, I started to add it to my cemita, and I liked the flavor. But in my experience, I’ve only seen it in cemitas, and as a tea. There are people who use it as a kind of a cleanser. But what it does, I don’t know. For me, it’s overpowering, I can’t hang with the papalo leaves. I can handle two or three leaves, but any more than that, 24 hours later, I’ll still be burping it.”
“There’s gotta be more, but I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s just a weed, and a lot of poor people, they only eat beans, so they gotta find something else to spice it up. So they tried papalo.”