Hierbabuena vs. Menta: What's the Difference?

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

Hierbabuena
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

Some translation websites translate hierbabuena as mint. They also translates menta as mint. However a more specific translation for hierbabuena is spearmint, a member of the mint family. Mint (or the genus mentha) includes most types of wild, domesticated, and hybrid mints like peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, and plenty of others. When a Spaniard says "No es menta, es hierbabuena" they're specifying that it's not just any kind of mint in your mojito, it's spearmint.

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. Spearmint has a mild flavor and can taste sweet. Rather than menthol, spearmint gets its flavor from a chemical called carvone.

Another popular mint is the hybrid peppermint. It is a cross between watermint and spearmint, and is arguable the most commonly used mint. Peppermint has a high menthol content (40 percent compared to the one percent in spearmint) and can taste almost spicy. It's very common during the holidays in candy canes, peppermint bark and in holiday themed drinks, but peppermint can also be used to soothe sore throats and relieve stress.

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 when ingested, however when applied topically pennyroyal can act as insect repellent, treat gout, venomous bits, mouth sores, and kill germs. Pennyroyal oil is also sometimes used as a fragrance in detergents and perfumes.

How to Make Hierbabuena Mojitos

Several legends surround the creation of the mojito, and it's not known exactly when it was first created, but that its birthplace was in Havana is an absolute certainty, as in the inclusion of a generous amount 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. The most commonly bought fresh mint in most countries, Spain included, tends to be spearmint, so it's unlikely that a different kind of mint will make an appearance. Whether the Spanish call it "menta" or "hierbabuena," it's still spearmint. 

If you want to make authentic hierbabuena mojitos, you'll need plenty of fresh spearmint. You can grow your own (it's easy to maintain and makes your garden fragrant) or you can buy it at the store. But whether you grow it or buy it, the spearmint 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. For an extra minty flavor, smack the spearmint against your hands before muddling and do the same to your garnish.

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