Considered one of the most popular herbs in the world, cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is recognized for its delicate green leaves and fresh, distinctive flavor. This leafy green is known by many names, including fresh coriander, coriander leaves, Chinese parsley, Mexican parsley, and dhania.
All parts of this plant are edible, but its leaves and dried seeds are most frequently used in cooking. In the United States, the fresh leaves are known as ‘cilantro’ and the dried seeds as ‘coriander’, however many other countries simply use ‘coriander’ to describe the entire plant—leaves and all. Take care not to confuse the two, for each has a completely different flavor profile.
Cilantro has been on mankind’s radar for a long time; it is actually considered to be one of the oldest herbs on record. Believed to have been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes in ancient civilizations, cilantro has been referenced in various Sanskrit, Roman, and Egyptian texts dating all the way back to the biblical era. While some credit the herb native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean, there is still a lingering debate among botanists about its precise origins.
Cilantro made an early appearance during the Old World spice trade, migrating along trade routes and dispersing throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Carried to the New World during the Columbian Exchange, more specifically to Central and South America, the flavorful herb infiltrated Latin American cuisine and later emerged as a common ingredient found in many of the regional recipes. Its emergence in North America is credited to British colonists settling in Massachusetts during the 1600s.
Today cilantro is available in markets year-round and is one of the staple herbs found in suburbanite kitchens everywhere. Cilantro owes its lofty status to America’s long-standing fascination with international cuisines and exotic flavors; an interest that has grown exponentially over the past few decades. As the spicy foods of Latin America, India, and Southeast Asia slowly gained popularity across the United States, cilantro, an herb used heavily in these cuisines, achieved a wide recognition of its own.
Buying & Storing
Look for bright, green evenly colored leaves, eschewing those that are wilted. Sniff to determine if the cilantro is aromatic; the sweeter and more pungent it is, the stronger the flavor will be. One of the biggest mistakes shoppers make while buying cilantro is confusing it with Italian parsley. An easy way to differentiate between the two is by using a simple rule: Italian parsley’s leaves are pointy- ‘P’- whereas cilantro’s leaves are curved- ‘C’.
The key to preserving cilantro is to avoid as much moisture around the leaves as possible. It is best stored when placed vertically in a jar of water, just like a bouquet of flowers, and kept in the refrigerator. If the leaves stay loosely covered with a plastic bag and the water is changed every few days, your cilantro should last for about a week.
Taste & Flavor
People either love or hate cilantro; there is really no in-between. To some, cilantro is incredibly aromatic and pleasant, hosting a nice lemony flavor highlighted by tones of anise, ginger, and sage. For others, a mere whiff of cilantro is enough to make them lose their appetite; many complain about an unpalatable soapy flavor. These people are not just picky eaters. They may have a genetically predisposed intolerance to cilantro. There is a worldwide divide between those that love or hate the herb. Which side of the love it/lose it cilantro fence do you fall on?
Cilantro makes an excellent complement to spicy foods, which is why it is such a popular ingredient in Latin American, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Southeast Asian cuisine. Cilantro pairs extremely well with avocados, chicken, cucumbers, lamb, limes, peppers, salsa, shellfish, tomatoes, and yogurt. Strong spice and herbal pairings include chiles, cumin, curry powder, garlic, ginger, and peppercorn.
Cooking & Preparing
Cilantro is often used to add a note of freshness to dishes such as curries, marinades, soups, and stews. Its bright characteristics help temper other intense-flavored ingredients (chiles or limes, for example) and bring a new dimension to each dish.
Use the herb whole, chopped, or minced. If the stems are thin and crisp, you can chop and throw them in with the leaves as well. The stems are generally used to flavor marinades, soups, and stocks.
Chop the cilantro just before adding it to your dish for maximum flavor. If you are adding it to a hot meal, wait until the food is almost completely cooked before tossing it in; the less amount of time cilantro is exposed to heat, the more flavorful it will be.
Liz Unger is a food and travel writer from New York, where she is pursuing her Masters degree in Food Studies at NYU. Liz’s passion for adventure, food, and exotic landscapes has led her across seven continents throughout the past five years. She keeps a blog of her exploits at sorryimnotsorryblog.com.