Recao (Eryngium foetidum)
by Brandon Ruiz
“Step into any kitchen in Puerto Rico (or in the Caribbean in general) and one of the first things to hit your nose will be the smell of this plant. Recao (Eryngium Foetidum) is a powerful plant that has enthralled me with its aroma and flavor since my abuela first added it to a dish bound for my stomach. As many cultures know, food is medicine. In the Western world, it seems we’re just now catching onto that concept, but the feeling of healing a wound and the feeling of a full stomach and satisfaction in the Caribbean are one in the same. On the island of Boriken (Puerto Rico), we call this plant Recao (wreck-ow). For the sake of honoring my history, I’ll be referring to it as this throughout the monograph, but many of you may be familiar with it as Culantro (yes, there’s a U in there not a typo for an I). I hope those of you who know this plant ally can read this and submerge yourself in a place and time where it stimulated your senses and reminded you of the taste of home as it does for me.” - Brandon
Other Names: Latin: (Eryngium Foetidum) syn. (Eryngium antihystericum) (Apiaceae), Culantro (English), Spirit Weed (Jamaica), Recao (Puerto Rico), Shado Beni (Trinidad), Fitweed (Guyana), Coulante (Haiti), Ngo Gai (Vietnam).
Description/Taxonomy: Eryngium Foetidum is a tap-rooted annual herb with long, branching rootlets. The oblanceolate green leaves form a basal rosette, and when in bloom they spiral up the short stem. The leaves are sharply serrated and each tooth of the margin has a short yellow spine. The blooms are surrounded by clusters of spikes and multiple flower heads appear on one plant. The calyx is green and the corolla white, and the seeds are very tiny and brown. The plant grows about 5-10 in. tall, and one plant can produce a hundred seeds, making it spread rapidly in ideal conditions.
Parts Used: The leaves, stems and flower heads are used for many culinary purposes, while the roots are used for more medicinal purposes.
History/Ethnobotany: Recao originates in the West Indies and throughout the tropics of the Americas. Throughout all of the regions recao grows/has been used in, it is used first and foremost as a food and spice. From being used interchangeably with cilantro, its pungent aroma and flavor is used to season many dishes. It’s the key ingredient in sofrito, a Puerto Rican spice blend also consisting of garlic, aji dulces, onion and various other ingredients. In terms of medicinal use, recao’s usage varies from place to place but usually has a general consensus of use. In Puerto Rico, the leaves are used in cooking and is eaten to ease digestive and stomach ailments. In Jamaica it has been used for treating colds and even convulsions in children, hence the name “fitweed” (alluding to its use to calm “fits” both mild and severe). The leaves are eaten as an appetite stimulant, digestive aid and for constipation. In India, the root has been chewed and applied as a poultice for scorpion and other insect stings, and the entire plant boiled is drunk for various ailments from mild digestive and cold issues to severe ailments like pneumonia. The Zeliang tribe of Nagaland uses recao for fever by creating a paste from the leaves and applying it to the forehead.
Recao has a significant repertoire for spiritual usage as well, throughout Africa and the Caribbean. It’s said that chewing the root will grant the consumer invisibility, and that this tactic was used by Maroons in Jamaica when fighting the British during the 17th century. It was documented that British soldiers claimed it seemed as if “the trees were fighting them” because they could see and hear the bushes rustling but could see no one. The plant is also known to ward away evil spirits and/or duppies (an African term for spirits and ghosts that made its way to the Caribbean).
Environmental Significance: Recao plays a role as a self-seeding ground cover. I don’t know of any specific pollinators that rely on it, or any specific importance to ecosystems!
Cultivation and Harvesting: Recao can be cultivated in temperate climates, but prefers tropical environments. In Charlotte, I grow it in the shade in very moist conditions. (I use half an IBC tote filled with soil and let it flood often to grow water-loving crops like taro (Colocasia esculenta) and Vietnamese Coriander (Persicaria odorata) In commercial production, synthetic fertilizers are commonly used to produce bigger leaves for bigger yields. The leaves are picked from the base, and it’s best to cut the flower stalks as they begin to appear, as their existence takes away flavor from the basal leaves. If left to go to seed in tropical environments, recao will soon be growing throughout the area. To plant, you can scatter the seeds in a tray and lightly cover them in soil, keeping them moist and very warm. They’ll germinate within around 2 weeks, and they can be carefully transplanted into their permanent home.
Energetics: Recao has a powerful aroma to it, like a blend of cilantro, garlic and oregano. It’s moving and clearing, some would even say pungent, as its Latin name foetidum means “to stink”. It moves energy in the stomach and lungs, and clears the sinuses.
Organ Affinities: Recao has an affinity to the digestive system. Its ability to stimulate digestion, calm digestive issues and act as an appetite stimulant reinforce this affinity. Even the smell of crushed leaves makes me hungry!
Constituents: Calcium, iron, carotene are found in significant amounts. Eryngial (E-2-dodecenal), tannins, several triterpenoids and various flavonoids. Eryngial is responsible for the plant’s anthelmintic, anti-bacterial and anti-convulsant actions.
Medicinal Actions: Anti-spasmodic, nutritive, anthelmintic, anti-bacterial, mild diuretic, stomachic, nervine (I only say nervine because of experience using it in teas after meals and helping to calm both my stomach and nerves. I think of it like catnip in that use. But I definitely wouldn’t call it a nervine as my first choice.)
Combining With Other Plants: Recao has been combined with Anamu (Petiveria alliaceae) in a decoction for fever and headaches. It can be combined with other nutritive herbs like Nettle (Urtica Dioica/Urera Baccifera) or Sarsaparilla (Smilax Spp.) for a broth to recover from illnesses. In sofrito, I like to combine it with other aromatics like garlic, onion, oregano and more! Due to its versatile and savory flavor, it can be combined with any sort of spices! I usually don’t blend it with brighter flavors like mints or floral herbs like tulsi etc.
Permaculture Use: Recao can be grown as a ground cover if planted enough, the plants don’t cover much space but with many it can help to retain moisture underneath larger bushes and trees. Areas that flood easily can also be used to grow recao.
Conservation and Considerations: Recao is not endangered or at-risk in the wild, and spreads quickly. The only consideration I can imagine is being cautious of the spines on the leaves and flower heads!
Dosage, Preparations and Consumption: The best preparation for using recao is truly through eating it! I have experimented with making a glycerite before and the flavor didn’t come out too strong. However I infused chopped leaves into olive oil and it made a strong and delicious infusion. Sofrito will always be my favorite use of recao, however you can add it into any dish chopped, just as you would any other spice. I have made a tincture of fresh, homegrown leaves in Everclear at 1:2 95%, and the result was very strong. The alcohol flavor ruined the experience that I’ve gotten familiar with, which usually involves spices and good food. But for acute medicinal use like cold/flu and digestive ailment, I would take a dropper or two, 3 times a day.
Accessibility: If you’re living in sub-tropical or tropical regions of the U.S (think Texas, Florida, California), you may have a local farm growing culantro. In Charlotte, NC, we are growing it as an annual, but it can be found at our local Latinx grocer, Compare Foods. It is usually shipped from the Caribbean or South Florida, and is always fresh, as the dried leaves don’t tend to have much flavor to them. Culantro is very cheap in stores unless grown as an “exotic” vegetable, which hikes up prices.
Cautions and Contraindications: There are no known contraindications with Culantro, however those who don’t care for the flavor of cilantro and feel it tastes like soap will feel the same way about this plant. The leaves and flower heads have sharp spikes that may be painful if handled incorrectly, but this herb is such a common spice used in cooking around the world that it rarely shows side effects after consumption.
Personal Experience and Recommendations: My all-time favorite usage of Recao is in a preparation we make in Puerto Rico called sofrito. Sofrito is a mix of many herbs, (there are as many variations as there are people) but usually starts with a base of culantro, aji dulces, cilantro, garlic, onion and coriander. I like to add African Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) and moringa or nettles for another medicinal boost. This blend is the cornerstone for a lot of Caribbean cooking, and is a medicinal preparation that nourishes the stomach, eases digestion and makes the whole house smell good! Recao can be used as a spice in any situation, and I also like to add it into soups. I have a recipe for a soup good for nourishing the blood, regulating energy and getting yourself back on your feet after illness that includes recao. It goes as follows:
-Heat up a pan with some oil, and once warmed add chopped recao, garlic, onion and aji dulces. Let this cook for a few minutes, then add your choice of beans or legumes (red beans, ayocote, chickpeas, even lentils).
-Once the beans/legumes are infused with the spices, pour water or a broth over this all, adding in roots and starches of your choice. (I usually use yams, yucca and a plantain or two.)
-Go crazy with spices, if I’m cheating I’ll throw a Sazon packet and some Adobo, but you can easily make these at home! I’ll put a bit of aceite de bixa (oil of achiote (Bixa Orellana)), bay leaves, cumin, more garlic and whatever else sounds good.
-Once the broth is made and is cooking down the roots and roots feel fully cooked, add nutritive greens to cook for the last 10 minutes. I like margarita (Bidens Spp.) which is a popular nutritive in Puerto Rico amaranth (Amaranthus Spp.) which we call Blero on the island, or nettles (European or tropical variety: Urera Baccifera). Or all three!
Enjoy the deliciousness! Oh yeah, definitely add salt. Make sure to make a big batch of this so you can eat it for the next day or two. Make sure to drink all the broth and only eat it warm. This Puerto Rican recipe is very medicinal, just like most of our food and will help restore your energy and fill you with nutrient-dense plants.