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Cilantro Impersonators: Use These Plants For Bursts of Flavor

| December/January 2000

  • The ‘real’ cilantro, Coriandrum sativum.
  • Vietnamese coriander, Polygonum odoratum.
  • One type of papaloquelite, Porophyllum coloratum, also known as broadleaf.
  • One subspecies of papalo, Porophyllum ruderale ssp. macrocephalum. This low-growing example came to the authors from Bolivia, where it is known as quinquilla.
  • Culantro, or Eryngium foetidum, is known throughout Mexico’s Yucatan and the Carribean.
  • Papaloquelite, or papalo, is an aromatic cilantro mimic from South America. It grows wild in ditches there, and reaches several feet high in the authors’ gardens.
  • A full-grown specimen of culantro, also called “thorny coriander.”
  • A mass of Vietnamese coriander, known in Vietnamese restaurants as rau ram.

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.

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