Cilantro, culantro, and vietnamese coriander

Other Names: Cilantro: Arab parsley; Chinese parsley; cigánypetrezselyem (Hungarian); cilantrillo (some Caribbean islands); gad or kusbara (Hebrew); Indian parsley; pak chi met or phak hom (Thai); wanzendill (German); yuen sai (Chinese). Culantro: Alcapate (El Salvador); black benny; cilantro extranjero or cilantro habanero (Mexico); false coriander; fitweed; Mexican coriander; ngo gai (Vietnamese); pak chi farang (Thai); Puerto Rican coriander; racao or recao (Puerto Rico); saw leaf herb; sawtooth coriander; sea holly (British); shado beni (Trinidad); spiny coriander. Vietnamese coriander: Laksa plant; laksa yip (Chinese); chan chom, hom chan, pa pao, or pak pai (Thai); rao ram (Vietnamese); smartweed; Vietnamese mint.

General Description: Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) has soft green leaves with cut edges, an assertive sage-citrus flavor, and a pungent aroma. The whole cilantro plant is aromatic and edible, from its rounded lower and feathery upper leaves and white summer flowers to its fruits (usually called seeds), tender stems, and potent roots. Cilantro’s unmistakable aroma may be considered either addictively wonderful or abhorrently fetid. It is popular throughout Asia (except Japan), the Middle East, and Latin America. Chinese, Thai, and Indian cuisines use cilantro extensively. Note that in the United States, cilantro refers to the herb leaves, while coriander refers to the seed of the same plant.

Culantro (Eryngium foetidum) is native to Latin America and the Caribbean and is related to cilantro. It has tall, stiff, serrated leaves with a prominent central ridge and a more penetrating aroma than cilantro. Culantro is used extensively in Southeast Asia and parts of the Caribbean, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Asia, culantro is most popular in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, where it is commonly used with or instead of cilantro for soups, noodle dishes, and curries. The Vietnamese use it to wrap other foods. Candied culantro seeds were popular in eighteenth-century Britain as a tonic, a cough remedy, and an aphrodisiac.

Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum) is a member of the buckwheat family and has smooth, oval leaves with a less pungent, more lemony aroma than cilantro. This herb, which is always used fresh, gives Vietnamese food its unique flavor, though it is also used in Malaysia and Singapore, where it is a common garnish for many kinds of foods, especially the soupy noodle dish called laksa, which comes from Singapore.

Season: For the mildest flavor, buy young cilantro, culantro, and Vietnamese coriander in spring or hothouse-grown cilantro year-round.

Purchase and Avoid: Drying destroys most of cilantro’s fragrance, so only buy it fresh. When purchasing either cilantro or culantro, be on the lookout for leaves that are yellowing or rotting. Look for culantro in Caribbean and Vietnamese groceries. Be especially vigilant when either herb has been picked in wet weather. Vietnamese coriander may be found in Vietnamese, Thai, or Malaysian markets. The leaves should be sprightly and bright.

Storage: Store cilantro, culantro, or Vietnamese coriander wrapped in paper towels and then in a plastic bag in the warmest part of the refrigerator, generally near the light. Field-grown cilantro sold with roots will keep best in a jar filled with water to maintain moisture. This type of cilantro can be quite sandy, so wash carefully and spin dry.

Serving Suggestions: Make Mexican pico de gallo by combining chopped tomatoes, green chiles, onion, lime juice, and plenty of chopped cilantro. Season Cuban black beans and Puerto Rican pink beans with culantro. Add Vietnamese coriander at the last minute to Vietnamese soups and Malaysian noodle dishes.

Food Affinities: Cilantro: Avocado, beef, ceviche, chicken, chiles, ginger, lime, onion, pork, pumpkin seed, shrimp, tomato, turkey. Culantro: Annatto, black beans, chiles, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, scallion, sesame oil, wild lime leaf. Vietnamese coriander: Bean sprouts, celery, chicken, chiles, coconut milk, crab, seafood, shrimp paste.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com