The Coriandrum sativum plant does double duty by producing one of the world’s most widely used and loved herbs as well as one of its most popular spices. The delicate, bright green leaves of this plant are known as the herb cilantro, while the seeds, known as coriander, are used whole or ground in recipes.
Cilantro, a much-craved flavor note in various world cuisines, also seems to be reviled by many. In a New York Times article last year, Harold McGee reported that in 2002 Larry King asked Julia Child on TV if there were any foods she hated.
She responded: “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs; they have kind of a dead taste to me.”
“So you would never order it?” King asked.
“Never,” she responded. “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”
So there you have it. Cilantro is not for everyone; even the most sophisticated palates may reject it. Those who abhor it describe its taste as bitter and soapy. Those who love it will wax on about its nutty, fresh, bold and bright notes. If you’re a fan, following are a few more facts. If you’re not, try cilantro again. Sometimes introducing a food in different contexts can change your mind about it. Know that Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Middle Eastern and Latin cuisines would not be the same without it.
History. According to TheEpicenter.com’s “Encyclopedia of Spices,” cilantro was originally grown around present-day Greece and has been used as a culinary herb since at least 5,000 BC. It is mentioned in Sanskrit text and in the Bible. Spanish conquistadors introduced it to Mexico and Peru, where it is now commonly paired with chilies in the local cuisine.
Culinary Uses. Cilantro leaves are always used fresh and are often chopped and sprinkled like parsley on cooked dishes. You’ll also see them minced or puréed in sauces, soups and curries. In Thailand the root of the coriander plant is used to flavor meats, curries and soups. In Mexico and the southwestern United States it is used in everything from salsas and salads to burritos and meat dishes. The herb is used to “lift” and complement the flavors of other ingredients. It rarely plays a starring role, except in dishes like cilantro pesto, which only a true cilantro aficionado would eat.
Buying and Storing. Cilantro can normally be found fresh in your local farmers’ market or grocery store and is available year-round. Purchase only perky, tender, bright green bunches (avoid leaves that are wilting, yellowing or super dark green). Before storing, rinse the leaves, shake them out well, roll in a paper towel and place inside a plastic bag in your refrigerator’s crisper compartment. The cilantro may be stored for up to 1 week.
Medicinal Properties. Cilantro is considered a digestive aid and an appetite stimulant; it aids in the secretion of gastric juices. The essential oils of the cilantro leaves contain antibacterial properties and can be used as a fungicide. It is also rich in vitamin C.
Cultivation. Cilantro is a fast-growing annual, reaching 12–24 inches tall. The entire plant is edible, including the leaves, seeds and roots. It can easily be grown in pots. For recipes, simply pick or trim fresh leaves or whole stalks as needed. The leaves develop a stronger and sometimes disagreeable flavor as they grow older and larger. Grow in full sun, and keep the soil moist but well drained.