Hierbabuena vs. Menta: What's the Difference?

It's easy to be confused, but the answer is simple

Andres Nieto Porras/Creative Commons

"Hierbabuena" and "menta" have slightly different meanings in Spain, but both are generally translated into "mint" in English. So what's the difference?

When you visit Granada, you'll find hierbabuena (pronounced 'YER-ba BWEN-ah') offered in a couple of different drinks. Moroccan-style tea houses all offer green tea like you'd get in North Africa—very sweet with lots of mint in it—while many restaurants and bars offer limonade con hierbabuena, which is a refreshing mixture of lemon juice, sugar, mint, and water.

"No es menta, es hierbabuena,"  (It's not mint, it's hierbabuena") a Spaniard will tell you when you say "Ooh, fresh mint in my mojito." But if you ask a Spaniard what the difference is, you never get an exact answer.

So what is hierbabuena and how is it different from menta, the Spanish word for mint? And how do they correspond with the English words "mint," "spearmint," and "peppermint"?

The short answer is that hierbabuena is spearmint in most cases. This is the same mint you find in your grocery store, and it is the go-to mint for most culinary uses. 

Hierbabuena and Menta: the Dictionary Translations

The popular translation website wordreference.com translates hierbabuena as mint. It also translates menta as mint. It also indicates that each one is a feminine noun (sustantivo femenino).

Mint Facts

Spearmint's botanical name is Mentha spicata, and it is also called garden mint, lamb mint, and mackerel mint. It's native to much of Europe and Asia and naturalized nearly everywhere else, including the United States, where thousands of acres of it are harvested each year. It's used in tea, salads, as a garnish, or in potpourris.

Another kind of mint, Mentha pulegium, is commonly called pennyroyal. It definitely should not be confused with spearmint. This plant can cause abortions if eaten, along with intestinal cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever, confusion, delirium, and hallucinations. In other words, it's toxic.

How to Make Hierbabuena Mojitos

Several legends surround the creation of the mojito, and it's not known exactly when it was born, but that its birthplace was in Havana is not up for debate, nor is the inclusion of mint.

Evidence points to the conclusion that mint the Spanish call hierbabuena that you find in mojitos and Moroccan-style tea in Spain is spearmint. Most common mint bought outside of Spain tends to be spearmint. So whether the Spanish call it "menta" or "hierbabuena," it's still spearmint. 

If you want to make authentic mojitos, you'll need plenty of mint. You can grow your own (it's easy and makes your garden fragrant) or you can buy it at the store. But whether you grow it or buy it, it must be fresh. Juice from a fresh lime and some top-shelf light rum, sugar, and club soda mixed with lots of mint make an authentic mojito just like the originals from Cuba. Make sure to "muddle," or smash, the ingredients to dissolve the sugar and get the most out of your mint.

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