Real Food Encyclopedia | Cilantro
It’s not an exaggeration to say that cilantro is an oldie but goodie. The wispy green-leafed herb known to much of the English-speaking world as coriander is thought to be among the first group of domesticated plants, dating to the 6th millennium. Beloved worldwide, both cilantro and its dried coriander seed are seasoning staples of countless cuisines and historically revered for their medicinal properties.
Coriander seed is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of Exodus, in the works of classical Greek playwright Aristophanes and in “Materia Medica,” the ancient herbal medicine text written by Greek physician Dioscorides. Roman gastronome Apicius gives coriander a shout out in his “De Re Coquinaria” (“Of Culinary Matters”), the world’s first known cookbook, written in 14 AD.
Of course cilantro is a staple herb in Mexican and tex-Mex cuisine, present in salsa and guacamole, which are snack staples of American households. Coriander seed remain an unsung hero in the kitchen and has not enjoyed the same level of fame in this country — at least not yet.
Fun Facts about Cilantro
- The word coriander is derived from the Latin word coriandrum and the Greek word koris, which means “bug,” a reference to the herb’s pungent aroma.
- Even though they are different parts of the same plant, cilantro and coriander have different cooking properties and flavor notes and cannot be used interchangeably in recipes, according to cookbook author Monica Bhide.
- In most parts of the English-speaking world, the herb is known as coriander leaf or green coriander and the spice as coriander.
What to Look for When Buying Cilantro
As anyone who’s ever tasted cilantro will tell you, the flavor (and often the aroma) of fresh cilantro is unforgettable and unlike anything else — where musky meets citrus — a flavor profile that you either love or hate. When shopping, look for leaves that are dry and free of dark green goop, which tends to accumulate around the stems when cilantro is ready for the compost bin. No yellowing or wilted leaves, which are signs of decay. Fresh bunches should smell bright and citrusy, not moldy or dusty.
Sustainability of Cilantro
In the past few years, there have been several multi-state recalls of conventional cilantro due to salmonella contamination. In August 2012, a California farm recalled more than 1,600 cases of fresh cilantro after government samples tested positive for salmonella. The irony of these salmonella-related recalls is that cilantro contains naturally occurring antibacterial compounds that have been studied for their ability to kill salmonella.
Although you won’t find cilantro on the Environmental Working Group’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, your best bet, given the herb’s food safety troubles on industrial farms, is to buy from a small-scale and local sources whenever possible and talk to the grower about production methods. (Or grow your own!) At the supermarket, we recommend buying organic cilantro. And most importantly, wash it well!
Cilantro loves the sun but not extreme heat. It flourishes during the spring and fall (in temperate zones) but bolts and hardens with the arrival of summer.
Keep fresh cilantro refrigerated, standing upright in a tall glass, like a bouquet of flowers, and loosely cover with a plastic bag. Cilantro is perishable and will quickly break down, and storing it in the crisper in a plastic bag will show just how fast it can turn to mush.
For coriander seeds, you’ll get a lot more mileage if you buy them whole (a staple of bulk sections) and grind them on an as-needed basis with a mortar and pestle or electric coffee grinder used expressly for spices. The difference in flavor is incomparable, and the house will smell wonderful. As with all spices, store away from heat and light.
Cooking with Cilantro
Moroccan cooking doyenne Paula Wolfert suggests using a food processor to grind cilantro leaves, after they’ve been washed and squeezed dry, to add to soups or as a garnish. She suggests prepping a large bunch of cilantro this way and then storing in mini plastic bags to be frozen for later use.
You can stir cilantro into a pot of black beans, garnish a veggie stir-fry, or to give a Thai edge to cut-up pineapple, mango or even cucumber. For even more kicks, throw in a handful of chopped peanuts, a splash of soy sauce and some fresh minced chile pepper.
If you’re not already a fan of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, hop to it! Many of his recipes feature either coriander or cilantro, or both. Here’s a recipe for his roasted squash with coriander sauce and fresh chopped cilantro.
Su Mei-Yu, author of “Cracking the Coconut,” writes that cilantro (and in particular its root, which is pounded and used to make curry paste), is among the “big four Seasonings” of Thai cookery (salt, garlic and Thai peppercorns are the other three); that “Thai cooking wouldn’t be what it is without this intensely aromatic root.” According to Mei-Yu, the use of cilantro roots is borrowed from southern Chinese cookery.
Mexican cooking doyenne Diana Kennedy writes in her most recent work, “Oaxaca Al Gusto,” that fresh cilantro sprigs are used in Oaxacan cookery “to season soups/broths, stews, and sauces” and that coriander seeds are used for sauces in certain parts of the region.
Coriander seeds are included in many home cooks go-to spices. Use it in spice rubs for chicken or fish (along with some smoked paprika, coriander, salt, brown sugar and a smidge of ground coffee), in curry or in pickling spice, which typically includes coriander seeds. Boerewors, the circular sausage of South Africa, is traditionally very heavily seasoned with coriander seeds. Coriander seed also figures prominently in Borodinsky bread, a Russian rye bread.
For millennia, cilantro and coriander have been considered a holistic medical wonder, used to treat various ailments, including indigestion, flatulence and insomnia.
A 2004 study suggests that cilantro may possess a natural antibiotic that’s effective in killing salmonella. According to the study, which was published in the “Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry,” cilantro leaves contain an antibacterial compound called dodecanal that is showing promise as an alternative to certain pharmaceutical antibiotics. It’s also been studied as a possible treatment for diabetes.
Cilantro has shown promise as a natural detoxifier and chelation agent, flushing heavy metals out of the body after chemotherapy or after the removal of mercury-based dental fillings.