A Fresh Look at Herbs: Coriander (Cilantro)

Cilantro’s nomenclature is somewhat confusing to many people who are unfamiliar with the herb. The entire plant and the seeds are properly named coriander, while the leaves alone are called cilantro. Colloquially, the entire plant and leaves are referred to as cilantro and only the seeds as coriander. Cilantro is also referred to as Chinese parsley. However, do not confuse cilantro with parsley (even though they look very similar) because their tastes are quite different.

Cilantro is one of those herbs that you either love or hate. Frankly I love cilantro and find excuses to put it in much of my cooking. However, because of its pungent taste (imagine a citrus-y anise) a lot of people find it, well, distasteful. Enter I-Hate-Cilantro-ists. There is actually an entire web based community that revels in the fact that they all despise this poor little herb. You can check out their antics at www.ihatecilantro.com. They have a store with all sorts of crazy anti-cilantro apparel including a dog tee-shirt and a thong. Why? I have no idea. Frankly I love the flat leafed little herb, but their disapproval amuses me.

All parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are the most commonly used in cooking. Coriander is commonly used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Latin American, Chinese, Vietnamese, African and Southeast Asian cuisine which is odd because the plant originated in the European and Mediterranean areas. The Romans spread it to Asia while the Spanish conquistadors introduced it to Mexico and Peru, who fell in love with this herb. The Europeans, however, have not been as impressed.

The leaves of cilantro are light green, feathery, and flat. The distinctive flavor of cilantro leaves is quite different from that of parsley (of which it is often mistaken). While the leaves are used as an herb, the dried seeds, called coriander seed, are used as a spice and have an entirely different taste. Its name is said to be derived from koris, Greek for “bedbug” since the plant smelled strongly of the insect, but I like to not think of bugs when I eat fresh herbs.

Americans are most familiar with cilantro in their salsa. However, cilantro and coriander are used all over the world in countless preparations. It is used with meat, chicken, fish, sauces, marinades, you name it. In Brazil, cilantro and scallions are essential ingredients for sauces commonly used in Brazilian cuisine. These two crops are often times sold together as cheiro-verde, referring to the color (green) and aroma.

Photo | F Mangan

Cultivation –

Growing
Cilantro can be grown in full sun or partial shade, but do not crowd the plants. It self-seeds readily and if you are companion planting, it enhances the growth of anise quite well. It is not difficult to grow from seed, but it is best to plant it where you wish it to stay as transplanting can often kill the plant. Do not over-fertilize cilantro because too much nitrogen can take away the flavor of the plant.

<strongMaintenance
Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers for the best flavor. If it is the seed you want, harvest them when the leaves and flowers turn brown and right before the seeds begin to scatter. Seeds have a bitter taste until you dry them so don’t use them immediately.

Photo | FragrantFields.com

Culinary –

Selecting
Cilantro is available year round, and all parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are the most commonly used in cooking. Select cilantro that is bright green with no yellowing of the stems. Because cilantro is typically bunched for retail, be sure the innermost stems are not slimy or deteriorating in any way. The herb most likely will be moist but should not have a yellow film.

Photo | Khin Khao Thai

Uses
This herb has a bold flavor and fragrance. The leaves have a sage flavor mixed with tangy citrus. It combines well with onions, clams, oysters, potatoes, and, of course, it is the herb of choice for any salsa. Add it to soups, stews, salad, and marinades. Because Cilantro loses flavor quickly when boiled or cooked, it is best to add it at the end of cooking to allow the flavors to disperse but not disappear entirely.

Photo | The Gourmet Project

Coriander seed is a key spice in garam masala and Indian curries, which often employ the ground fruits in generous amounts together with cumin. It also acts as a thickener. Roasted coriander seeds, called dhana dal, are also eaten as a snack. It is also the main ingredient of the two south Indian gravies: sambhar and rasam.

Try cilantro in your crabcakes or shrimp salad. Or chop cilantro and garlic, add a little oil and spread this mixture on your meat, poultry, or fish. Skip the oil to save calories. For a creamy low fat dressing with diverse uses, mix equal parts of buttermilk and plain yogurt with salt, pepper, and a good amount of chopped cilantro. (Remember, buttermilk is made from low fat milk). Ground coriander is a great addition to dry rubs. It pairs particularly well with cumin, curry, paprika, garlic, and chile powder.

If you’re more decadently inclined, make cilantro oil or mayonnaise. There are several ways to make cilantro oil but check out Tasty Planner’s cilantro oil recipe. For cilantro mayonnaise, simply chop some cilantro, garlic, and an optional jalapeño pepper and then mix with mayo, lime juice, salt and pepper (remind yourself to try this by adding this cilantro-lime mayo recipe to your planner).

Check out these other cilantro recipes on Tasty Planner, or try one of my favorites:

Chicken Verde- Tomatillos (Mexican green tomatoes) and cilantro create a delicious green sauce that gives this dish its name.

Photo | StraightFromTheFarm

Spicy Thai-style Beef Salad- A Thai-inspired, spicy, fresh and meaty salad dish. Great for special occasions – use only the best quality meat, and cook it rare to be at it’s best.

Carrot and Coriander Soup- One of the best soups ever. It is creamy and excellent hot or cold and regardless of the time of year.

Chicken with Lime and Avocado Salsa- Grilled chicken served with a simple avocado salsa with lime that is to die for.

Storage
Store fresh cilantro in a plastic bag or place the roots in a container of water. Either way, in a few days it will be a shadow of it’s original self. However, the leaves do not keep well refrigerated and should be eaten quickly, as they lose their aroma when dried or frozen.

Coriander seeds can be purchased fresh, sun dried, or roasted. When grinding at home, it can be roasted or heated on a dry pan briefly to enhance the aroma before grinding. Ground coriander seeds lose their flavour quickly in storage and are best ground as only needed. For optimum flavor, whole coriander seed should be used within six months, or stored for no more than a year in a tightly sealed container away from sunlight and heat.

Photo | Pinch my Salt

Nutritional Information –

Nutrition
1/4 cup (4 g) of cilantro contains about 16% of the daily recommended amount of Vitamin K and about 5% of your Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Folate, and many others. Research studies have shown that cilantro is a mild anti-inflammatory.

Health Benefits
Coriander seeds have a health-supporting reputation that is high on the list of the healing spices. In parts of Europe, coriander has traditionally been referred to as an “anti-diabetic” plant. In parts of India, it has traditionally been used for its anti-inflammatory properties. In the United States, coriander has recently been studied for its cholesterol-lowering effects.


Comments

Bruno Miranda July 2nd, 2008

I see a lot or confusion between people who think cilantro and coriander 2 different herbs. Your explanation is simple and should clear things up.

The Cilantro oil recipe you posted is awesome: http://tastyplanner.com/recipes/3491-cilantro-oil

Thank you for yet another great post.

Anthem July 2nd, 2008

I’ll second that. I never knew the distinction between cilantro and coriander and always thought they were the same thing. Little did I suspect they’d even have different flavors.

Thanks for helping me (and the rest of the world) understand these wonderful herbs and spices.

Dre671 November 6th, 2008

I LOVE CILANTRO!!! Thanks for the clarification and the awesome recipes! You rock!

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