Paracress: Brazil’s Toothache Herb

Paracress is not a relative of the real cresses despite its name; instead, it belongs to the Asteraceae family along with echinacea and dandelions. It has very different culinary qualities from watercress and its ilk. Unlike the pungency that cresses get from isothiocyanate, the sharpness of paracress centers around the mouth only. Isothiocyanate is the compound that makes horseradish hot, and it affects both nose and mouth.

Botanists believe paracress to have originated with the Acmella alba plant from Peru, which shares many of the same properties.

The botanical name of paracress is Acmella oleracea. Other names for it include toothache plant and electric daisy. Brazilians know it as jambu and the indigenous Brazilians have been cooking with it for centuries. It was most likely carried from Brazil to Southern Asia on Portuguese ships long after Columbus’s arrival in the New World. Paracress was most likely exported to the Subcontinent by Indian laborers brought to South America to build railroads.

Among the few places where paracress is used outside of Brazil is in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu where it is called mandal poo chedi. In India, the plant is used as a medicine to treat various health conditions.

The flavor of paracress can stand up to boiling better than that of watercress and becomes a mildly flavored vegetable when it is cooked for long enough.

Paracress flavor profile

The flavor of paracress is unique with the closest analog being Sichuan pepper. The reason that this herb is considered most like Sichuan pepper is the fact that it causes numbness instead of the stinging heat that you get from chili peppers. Aside from the numbing effect, paracress has a grassy and herbaceous flavor. The flowers offer a subtle citrus note similar to that form lemongrass.

Health benefits of paracress

The health benefits of paracress are the result of compounds it contains, such as:

  • Spilanthol: The health benefits of the paracress plant come from the compound spilanthol. Spilanthol is responsible for the flavor profile as well.
  • Minerals: Paracress is a good source of various minerals including potassium and calcium, which are found in the leaves and stems.
  • Vitamins: Paracress is a good source of various B vitamins including B1, B2 and B3. It also provides vitamin C.

You can use paracress to provide relief from specific ailments or to prevent them. Those health problems include:

  • Respiratory issues: In Brazil, paracress is commonly used in folk medicine to treat conditions like coughs and colds. It is an effective cough suppressant and has been used outside of Brazil for this specific purpose as well.
  • Toothaches: The nickname toothache plant comes from the fact that paracress’s numbing effect helps to provide temporary relief from tooth pain.

Common uses

Most culinary use of paracress is in Brazil by indigenous people in the states of Amazonas, Para and Ceara. In these places, cooks often use paracress as a seasoning for manioc (cassava). Manioc is the staple tuber of Brazil. Paracress is used to season duck and to make a soup called tacaca, that includes dried shrimp and manioc.

In some dishes, the herb is used alongside hot peppers to create a unique flavor profile. These days, the herb is a popular ingredient in various cocktails, including the most popular one in Brazil: the caipirinha.