25 Jun Cilantro: Herb with an Attitude
a test kitchen dossier
Ignacio: Just add cilantro.
Betty: I don’t think I have cilantro. Can I just add extra cheese?
-Ugly Betty, August 23, 2007
From Coriandrum Sativum, Latin. Koriannon or korion, Greek. Kori is the Greek word for bug and can be related to a disdain of some for the taste and odor of the leaves. Wazendill in German means “bug’s dill”.
One of the world’s most popular and widely used herbs, cilantro leaves are the leafy projections of coriander seeds. The leaves are green with scalloped edges and are quite thin and soft. Cilantro is a very lightweight herb allowing it to be coarsely chopped while still remaining pleasantly consumable.
Cilantro is known for its pungent, citrus smell which has spurred vehement opposition and repulsion since ancient times. This passionate debate has continued today; the web is riddled with “I hate cilantro” groups giving haters a forum to voice their disdain for the pervasive herb. There are several speculations for the utter repulsion of those who are passionate about their cilantro hating: their palates are super sensitive, there is a medical and evolutionary explanation for their perception of the chemicals in the herb that causes them to shy away from it such as they would a poison, or they have not given it a fair chance like any other food to which one must become accustomed. The modern debate over cilantro can get heated. We encourage the debate and recommend repeated experimentation.
Cilantro and its seeds, coriander, are native of the Middle East. Cilantro migrated very early on to Southeast Asia, China, and India. Latin America had a similar native herb, culantro, with very large, tough leaves that was later replaced by the cilantro that we know today. Widely rejected in Western Europe, cilantro leaves were all but avoided due to their perceived “soapy” taste. Cilantro is still rarely found in modern European cuisine. This perceived soapy taste is due to the unsaturated aldehyde, decenal, which can also be found in soaps and detergents and gives oranges their “waxy” note. Despite the herb’s reputation difficulties over the centuries, it remains a popular addition to many Asian, Indian, and Mexican dishes.
Fresh applications are the best use of cilantro. The leaves’ short lifespan when added to foods is a small perk that confirms freshness. Use in uncooked dishes such as guacamole or vinaigrettes, as heating causes it to lose flavor, aroma, and most importantly its attitude. It can also be added at the last minute to add a splash of color and a loud burst of flavor. Use cilantro sparingly as a little goes a long way to add life and depth to a dish. Cilantro oil can also be a bright and flavorful peppery addition to a soup or a visual contrast to a white plate or light colored food. Cilantro is available both fresh and dried. However, due to its fragile life once harvested, we would recommend using fresh leaves for the highest degree of flavor. Once dried, its piquant acidity is almost nonexistent.
The cilantro used today is uniform across all cuisines unlike basil, for example. The nomenclature however can differ across languages and cultures as some refer to cilantro as “coriander” or “coriander leaves”.
Cilantro is a great accompaniment to fresh tomatoes, avocados, and fish. The citrus notes enhance the freshness of a dish and provide coolness to a spicy dish. Indian cuisine often combines the herbs cilantro and mint for a refreshing mix. Cilantro marries well with chili peppers, jalapeno, rice, carrots, coconut milk, chicken, white fish, lemon, and lime. It will complement cumin, chili powder, ginger, garlic, and tamarind.
We would leverage cilantro’s loud qualities to add brightness to dishes where an acidic, citrus flavor is beneficial. Stretch the imagination when it comes to utilization. Use in place of basil where more pungent flavor is desired as in a fresh pesto. Turn up the volume in couscous or quinoa salads. Blend into marinades for lamb or salmon. Add liveliness to lemon butter or stuff into yellowtail sushi rolls for a surprising kick. Black beans provide a beautiful, dark backdrop for the bright green leaves. What is more beautiful than steaming buttery heirloom carrots topped with chopped cilantro? Picture a bright bowl of jicama, melon, and mango all dressed up with cilantro vinaigrette. The colors exhilarate our soul and arouse our plate. The taste makes sparks in our mouths. If you’re a cilantro hater, take a toe first, cautious approach. You never know, you could be sprinkling your fish tacos with the zesty herb in no time. We are in the “love cilantro camp” and we dig the attitude.
Photo: Tomasz Olszewski
Dossier by Kalle Guinn and Madeline Shores