Cilantro (Coriamdrum sativum) is a very popular seasoning. It seems a paradox, as opinions on this plant are so contradictory — people either love its flavor or detest it. The plant is so popular in the cuisine of China that it is called Chinese parsley. Some may call this spice coriander which derives from the Greek word koris, meaning 'bed bug' referring to the peculiar scent it has when the leaves are crushed. Here are some of the descriptions of its flavor and odor from various sources: slightly soapy; like parsley but tangier; citrusy, biting tang; fragrant; zesty; muddy; a mixture of cumin and caraway; stinky bed bug flavor; smells and tastes of chemicals; pungent; unforgettably pungent; sharp, strong, earthy; sage citrus flavor; clean and distinct flavor; orange peel-like aroma; sweet flavor; slight numbing quality; like wood bugs'; wild and uncharacterizable. I use the leaves a lot in recipes; the smell of the fresh cut leaves is intoxicating. To me the flavor is quite unique I think the leaves have a sage like taste mingled with lemon peel and the seeds have a more earthy and cinnamon like taste.

All parts of cilantro are used in cooking — leaves, stems, roots, and seeds. While the leaves are favored by cooks in Chinese, Thai and Mexican cuisine, the seeds are often used in Indian and Asian dishes. In Southeast Asia, cilantro root is used along with the leaves to flavor curry pastes and sauces. Cilantro is also a popular ingredient in Mexican salsas. The roots taste like a combination of mild cilantro and celeriac, and are flavorful in stir-fries. The leaves don't dry well so it is best when used fresh. It's not generally available in stores with its roots intact; use an inch of the stalk instead.

One of the world's oldest culinary herbs and spices, it was used over 5000 years ago by the Chinese to spice up cakes, beverages and candies. Roman society used the leaves for both food and medicine, and steeped the dried seed (coriander) in vinegar, along with caraway, to preserve meat. Egyptians placed coriander seeds in the tomb of King Tut and it was mentioned in the Epers Papayrus. Coriander is said to be one of the bitter herbs in the Passover tradition. It was an ingredient in love potions during the Middle Ages and did you know that coriander is mentioned as an aphrodisiac in The Tales of the Arabian Nights? During World War II, the seeds were coated with sugar and marketed as sugar drops. They were once thrown from carnival wagons, but many thought it was wasteful, so little balls of paper were substituted, leading to the term confetti.

This charming herb belongs to the parsley or carrot family Apiaceae (syn.Umbelliferae). It adores the sun reaching an average height of 24 inches and is happiest planted in a well-drained rich soil blooming merrily in the late spring and early summer. Planted near anise it enhances the flavor and has the added benefit of repelling those pesky little aphids.

Because spices are plants generally harvested for their barks and seeds and herbs are cultivated for their leaves this makes cilantro technically speaking both an herb as well as a spice. As it grows the plant undergoes a quick transformation. The deeply lobed lower leaves are harvested while they are still young. When it's gathered at this stage it's called cilantro. As the plant grows and begins to bloom the upper leaves become narrow taking on a fern like appearance and white to pale pink flowers emerge in umbels similar to other members of the carrot family. Yellowish-brown coriander seeds about beige in color with ridges on the surface of the seed case ¼ inch in diameter from in the uncut flowers.

The plant withstands a range of growing environments, but does best in a rich soil. Daylight sensitive, if it’s grown for seed most gardeners plant it in late spring and it will quickly flower. Planted in mid summer it will stay in leaf longer before it blooms and sets seeds. Make sure to sow the seeds after the danger of frost has passed, about one inch deep and twelve to fifteen inches apart. Coriander grows and germinates rapidly and usually flowers within nine weeks of sowing. To enjoy this plant from early spring and into the summer many grow successive plantings every two to three weeks. If allowed to go to seed it will happily re seed itself throughout the growing season, and some may germinate the next year.

An airy and attractive plant, its beauty is fleeting. It looks pretty grown next to flat leafed parsley, bronze fennel, or chamomile for an interesting contrast of color and textures.


Country Living Gardener:

Plants in My Herbal Garden: Smith & Hawkins, "Coriandrum sativum," The Book of Outdoor Gardening, 1996.

I never understood why people would dislike cilantro until I moved from southern California to Chicago, where produce is imported over mind-boggling distances a large fraction of the year. I discovered that it is absolutely vital that cilantro be fresh, sold and used soon after harvesting. This seems to be a matter of both flavor and simple mechanics. As an herb, the fragrance of fresh cilantro fades relatively quickly -- it is not durable like curly parsley. More mundanely, cilantro's large surface area and small volume means it dehydrates very rapidly. Thus, by the time cilantro reaches my kitchen in the Chicago winter, it has morphed from a crisp brightly fragrant herb to something akin to flavorless pieces of rubber laced with fiber.

On a more practial note, cilantro is best stored washed and cleaned, in a sealed tupperware-type container lined with paper towels.

Cilantro is one of my favorite herbs - I consider it to be magic. It's a very good flavoring when it's fresh, less so if it's left out too long.

Ramen, especially salt or chicken-flavored, is heavenly with a bit of chopped-up cilantro. Classic salsa - not the type that comes out of a can - is best made with a few sprigs of cilantro. Other Mexican dishes use it as well.  Cilantro Slaw, similar to Cole Slaw, is a good example...

Cilantro Slaw

5 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup cilantro (minced)
1/4 cup lime juice
1 Tsp. Water
1 Tsp. Honey
Cumin seeds (1/2 to 1 Tsp., depending on taste)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
-Just mix everything together in a bowl.

I also like to put cilantro leaves in marinades - it lends them a more crisp and citrusy flavor. When I'm in the mood to make guacamole, I usually stick a little bit of cilantro in there, too. But beware - there are quite a few people out there who hate cilantro, and its parent plant, coriander. If you're making something for a large group of people, check first to see if there are any cilantrophobes about.

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