If basil, especially in the form of pesto, was undisputedly the herb of the eighties, then surely cilantro was the “in” herb of the nineties. When the dust had settled over restaurant ranges and backyard herb gardens, it seemed as if this herb’s popularity had only continued to grow—to sometimes outlandish and unrealistic proportions.
Cilantro, as the leaf of Coriandrum sativum is known in this country, is sometimes described upon first acquaintance as “hot,” “stinking of bedbugs,” “unpleasantly soapy,” “strangely fishy,” or absolutely delicious and habit-forming. Well, neither of us has ever come face to face with a bedbug to our knowledge, so we can’t explain how that particular description originated. Moreover, cilantro has no heat to its flavor, but it is often paired with piquant chiles, fresh or dried, so maybe that’s the source of the “hot” impression. Vocabulary aside, cilantro is definitely an acquired taste. Gwen loves it, but in moderation and mostly when combined with other herbs. Madalene, on the other hand, could live forever without its taste.
We do, however, agree that cilantro is often used inappropriately and to wretched excess, especially by some trendy chefs. Hopefully, that stage, like others, will pass.
The secret of cilantro's success
How did strangely pungent cilantro manage to become so popular? Few seasonings enjoy a range of use as widespread. From Mexico and the Caribbean to much of Africa, throughout Central and Southeast Asia, China, even into the Republic of Georgia of the old Soviet Union, cilantro leaf appears in practically every cuisine except those of Western Europe, where only coriander seed is used.
The name “coriander” comes from the Greek koris, meaning bug, a term used to describe the odor and taste of cilantro’s leaves (especially by those who can’t stand it). “Cilantro” is a Spanish name by which the foliage of coriander has become known in the United States. Even many Asians now speak of it as cilantro.
The other common name for the plant in English-speaking areas is Chinese or Arabic parsley. But it’s all the same species. The leaf used in Mexican, Vietnamese, and Thai cookery, as well as fragrant Middle Eastern concoctions, comes from the same plant that produces the seed. It is just that some strains of C. sativum produce a thicker stand of foliage and are slower to bloom and bolt to seed, making them the ones to plant if it’s only the leaves you want.
But sooner or later, the drive to reproduce overcomes the best-behaved cilantro. For those who can’t get enough of this flavor and can’t find it in the off seasons, there are other herbs that can be easily used in its place. If you think of that musty bite as a flavor, rather than as a specific plant, you’ll find it in quite a few unrelated herbs.
Wherever there are large ethnic populations in Southeast Asia, Japan and China, Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Mexico, cilantro-flavored herbs also are found. Many have been imported and are now readily available for the home gardener. They should be added at the last minute to hot dishes or as flavoring in uncooked and cold recipes. The essential oils contained in most of these plants are so volatile (or quick to escape) that the distinctive flavor is lost in long cooking. All of the cilantro-flavored plants below are also used as traditional and folk medicine for various simple complaints.
We were given our first cilantro taste-alike back in 1968. Eryngium foetidum is commonly called culantro in Mexico’s Yucatan area and throughout the Caribbean. The name is a never-ending source of questions; most people think it is just a misspelling of cilantro. Culantro’s soft, spined, serrated leaves grow three to five inches in length and are arranged in a rosette. The soft prickles on the leaves are not a problem once it is chopped or cooked.
We were told by our original source of the plant that culantro grows wild in ditches in the Dominican Republic and throughout much of the tropical world. It is used in the same manner as cilantro. Of course, that was in the days before peppery Mexican salsas and highly seasoned Oriental cuisines became popular, back when most Americans had never tasted the leaves of regular cilantro, let alone any of the copycats. (In fact, prior to 1970, most herb and spice books indicated that the leaf of C. sativum was inedible, if they mentioned it at all.)
Like coriander, culantro is a member of the Umbelliferae, or parsley family. It flowers in a stiff bloom stalk, six to sixteen inches long, with tiny, egg-shaped blooms arranged in the typical umbrella form with very sharp bracts. These are the thorns that give the plant its name. Beware; they can be wicked when encountered in the garden.
Native to the New World and found from Vera Cruz to Panama and the West Indies, culantro, sometimes called recao, is widespread throughout tropical Africa and Asia, having moved back and forth with traders through the centuries. It is naturalized and cultivated throughout Southeast Asia; the Vietnamese call it ngo gai.
The name culantro often appears with the further description “del monte,” indicating a mountain home, or at least some adaptation to growing on slopes. Culantro is found in widely divergent climatic conditions, in areas that receive anywhere from 27 to 157 inches of rainfall annually and in full sun or partial shade. It grows well in fertile garden soil, slightly more acid than that preferred by regular coriander (pH 4.3 to 6.8 in the wild).
Culantro proved to be a hardy perennial in one of our Zone 8b gardens. It survived short periods of temperatures in the low 20s with no protection. We cut bloom stalks periodically and it showed no tendency of dying after the flowering period as long as it didn’t get too much water. In another Zone 8b location, however, it didn’t make it through the winter.
If you intend to grow it where winters are fairly cold, we suggest starting culantro from seed indoors in late winter, setting out transplants after danger of frost is passed. It grows vigorously right through the hot steamy Texas Gulf Coast summer, when regular coriander has long since bloomed and gone to seed. However, it can be a tasty morsel for slugs, probably encouraged by the succulent leaves that stay low to the ground. For an insecticide-free solution to that problem, try putting small rocks around the base of the plant.
The flavor of culantro is indistinguishable from coriander or cilantro. If anything, the leaves, which become rather tough as they mature, have a stronger flavor and are less prone to be destroyed by overcooking and mishandling. Use culantro with beans, in soup and stews, especially those featuring seafood, but add it at the last minute, almost as garnish. Sprinkle it in salads, salsas and sauces, fiery condiments, and cold or uncooked dishes. In Vietnam, thorny coriander is eaten with boiled fertilized eggs. In Africa and other parts of Asia, culantro or other corianders, along with sweet, mild herbs such as mint, basil, and parsley, are often served atop pungently flavored curry dishes.
With the large number of new Vietnamese restaurants appearing in most cities, it’s no wonder that spring or summer rolls, grilled beef or pork with lemongrass, and delicate soups packed with shrimp and mushrooms are becoming more common. All of these are generally eaten with a cilantro-flavored herb, along with mint, basil, and garlic chives, all placed on the table so that diners may use them as they wish.
The cilantro-flavored herb most Vietnamese restaurants choose is Polygonum odoratum, Vietnamese coriander. Commonly known as rau ram (pronounced “zow-zam” or “zow-ram,” according to our Vietnamese friends), this herb is extremely soapy flavored, with fruity overtones. A little goes a long way, but like cilantro, its flavor is easily destroyed by cooking or overchopping. Our friends just tear it, tender stems and all, and throw it into soups, salads, and noodle dishes, or roll it with other herbs into lettuce or rice wrappers stuffed with meats, seafood, and vegetables.
Vietnamese coriander is a tender perennial, a member of the buckwheat family. It’s one of the many plants commonly called smartweed. It has red stems and dark green, lanceolate leaves, often marked with red. It requires a rich, moist soil and semi-shade in Texas, but may tolerate full sun if it gets enough water.
This coriander is usually available fresh in markets that cater to Southeast Asians. The stems sometimes have roots attached, so you may be able to root it for your home garden. Vietnamese coriander blooms in spikes of pink or white flowers, but we rarely see them; when we do, they seem to be triggered by late fall chill. The plants can be troubled by fungus and slugs, especially when grown in shade, which promotes a softer, more trailing growth habit. Try moving to a sunnier area if this becomes a problem. Keep branches pinched back to encourage new young growth.
Even if you’re not a fan of cilantro flavor, Vietnamese coriander is worthy of cultivation for its lovely foliage. It makes a handsome container plant in areas with severe winter temperatures.
Cilantro taste also appears in a well-known landscaping plant, Houttuynia cordata, a member of the Saururaceae, or lizard’s-tail family. The plant has no common name, but is fondly known as “hooten-nany” by some. Its heart-shaped leaves make a thick ground cover and appear in a green form as well as a tricolor cultivar, “Chameleon,” that is splashed with red, green, and white and has a slightly different taste.
There are two chemotypes (variations of the oils) of Houttuynia cordata: the Japanese, which is scented of oranges, and a Chinese form that smells more typically of cilantro. To our knowledge, most of what is available in this country is the Chinese strain.
A perennial hardy to at least USDA Zone 5, Houttuynia cordata multiplies from stolons and can be extremely invasive. Cultivate it in large clay containers or plant it as a ground cover under taller shrubs, away from other low-growing plants. It grows well in semi-shaded, moist conditions but tolerates full sun with sufficient watering. The coloration of ‘Chameleon’ is most striking when grown in a sunny area.
Those familiar with Houttuynia cordata as a landscape plant are surprised to find that it is edible. It’s used in many parts of Asia with fish soups and stews, in salads, and with the classic fertilized eggs.
The newest additions to the ranks of cilantro taste-alikes are a group of plants commonly known as papalo or papaloquelite. They include two subspecies of Porophyllum ruderale and two varieties of Porophyllum colorata. The genus name means “pored leaf” and refers to the translucent oil glands arranged in lines on the leaves. Extremely large and easily visible to the naked eye, these oil glands provide one of the strongest scents that botanists have recorded. A low-growing variety of papalo, known as quinquilla or quillquiña, came to us from Bolivia where it is reportedly used to treat liver ailments and high blood pressure as well as to season food.
Our original source for papalo was the late Lynn Lowery, that venerable Houston plantsman responsible for so many horticulture treasures. The seeds were brought by his Mexican nursery workers from the state of Guerrero, near the South Pacific coast, to be grown for their own use. We observed it growing nearly ten feet tall in the nursery’s compost pile!
Papalo is gathered wild in many areas of Mexico. We saw it in the marketplace at Cuernavaca, where the stalks rested in a glass of water on the counter of a food stall, available for diners to blend to taste with soups and stews or roll into tortillas.
A year-round supply
All of these herbs are fairly easy to cultivate once you search out the seeds and/or plants. If you garden in warm areas, we suggest growing regular cilantro during the cool season of winter and very early spring, reserving papalo for the hot weather of summer. If you are a real cilantro nut, you’ll want your own stash of these plants growing right where you can snip them to add to whatever dish needs a quick fix. Remember that these herbs have strong flavors; in addition to using them alone, combine them with other herbs such as sweet basil, dill, mild oregano or sweet marjoram, mint marigold, rosemary, and/or spearmint. Give friends who may not be as enamored of cilantro flavor as you are a chance to be gently introduced.
Gwen Barclay and Madalene Hill live, cook, and garden in the central Texas town of Round Top. Gwen is the director of food service at the International Festival Institute, and Madalene is the curator of the public herb gardens.