Huacatay (Tagetes minuta), next to other local names also known as Wacatay and Peruvian black mint as well as wild, mint, or southern marigold, is an aromatic herb native to Peru used as a seasoning in cooking as well as for medicinal purposes.
The plant is a flowering member of the marigold family growing in the Peruvian Andes (and all-over South America) to heights of half a meter to two meters (1.5 – 6 feet). Its soft green leaves and tiny yellow or green flowers emit an intense and distinctive, but pleasant fresh marigold floral aroma and taste like a fruity and cooling mixture of basil, tarragon, mint and lime.
Chopped fresh, dried or in paste form Huacatay plays an important role in the Peruvian cuisine especially in dishes from southern Peru. It’s used as condiment in soups, stews and marinates such as the one for Peru’s famous Anticuchos. Often, it’s as well added to or the key ingredient in sauces such as in Salsa ocopa, which not only are served with Peru’s beloved Pollo a la Brasa or to BBQs but also let Arequipa’s simple potato dish Ocopa taste heavenly. And Huacatay as well adds a certain something the meats and vegetables of Peru’s delicious Pachamanca. Juices like Camu-Camu or jams get a first unusual, but then special mint-like flavor when Huacatay leaves are added.
But Huacatay is not only a seasoning giving dishes this special flavor. For thousands of years the aromatic herb is used in Peru as repellent and natural medicine.
Health benefits of Peruvian Huacatay
- Huacatay is a source of valuable antioxidants and has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and carminative properties.
- The flavorful tea made from fresh or dried leaves and / or flowers helps fighting colds, respiratory inflammations, and asthma
- Additionally, Huacatay tea as well as the oil are believed to be effective for treating stomach pains and infections with intestinal parasites such as ascarids and hookworms.
- And bundles of fresh or dried stems of Huacatay are supposed to keep the house free from insects and bats.
While for years it was nearly impossible to find Huacatay outside Peru, today it's available at least dried, frozen or as paste in Latin American shops or with online retailers. For medicinal purposes huacatay oil is increasingly sold. Finding it fresh might still be a mission, however you could try to plant it as a nice addition in your herb garden.