Kitchen Window: Cilantro, The Controversial HerbLike politics and religion, this leafy plant elicits strong opinions. Even its name is subject to debate: The leaves are called cilantro, while the seeds are called coriander -- at least in the U.S. But it's so easy-growing and versatile that it is featured in cuisines from all over the world -- which means ample opportunity to join the debate.
When you are a cooking instructor, the last thing you want is for a student to flee your class. It happened to me, but I swear it wasn't my fault. It was the cilantro.
The cooking class featured a Southwest American menu that embraced cilantro. Not 10 minutes into the introduction of the cuisine, one student's eyes began to water and her throat constricted. She admitted she didn't like cilantro, and she believed her reaction was due to her close proximity to the springy bouquets I had placed around my kitchen as edible decoration. She didn't have to ingest it; simply sharing a room with this herb was enough to set off her attack. Apologizing profusely with tears streaming down her face, she clutched her purse and fled my home. There were no other casualties that afternoon, but it did get me thinking about cilantro.
Like politics and religion, cilantro elicits strong opinions. People love it or hate it. For some, it's an acquired taste, thus attracting its share of proselytizing converts, such as myself. Even the name of the plant can be controversial. In the U.S., the leaves are called cilantro, while the seeds are called coriander. In Europe, the leaves are called coriander, while the seeds are also called coriander. To confuse matters further, cilantro leaves are also known as Chinese parsley.
About The Author
Lynda Balslev moved to Paris to study cooking in 1991. She returned to the U.S. 17 years later with a Danish husband, two children and previous addresses in Geneva, London and Copenhagen. During that time, she worked as a freelance food writer, caterer, cooking instructor and food editor for the Danish magazine Sphere. Currently she lives in California's Bay Area, where she writes about food and culinary travel on her blog TasteFood, teaches cooking and is relieved to be speaking English again.
Whatever your culinary or linguistic disposition, this is one herb the world apparently can't live without. Featured in the cuisines of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Asia, cilantro has a culinary history dating back millennia. Its seeds were found in 8,000-year-old caves in Israel. There are ancient Sanskrit and biblical references to coriander. Even King Tut claimed a piece of the cilantro action with seeds scattered in his tomb. Introduced to the Americas by Europeans in the 1600s, the coriander plant is a relative newcomer to this part of the world. It's been growing like the dickens ever since, making up for any lost epochal time while achieving a prominent place in American Southwestern, Mexican and Latin American cuisines.
The entire cilantro plant is edible, including its root. The seeds, known as coriander, are the dried ripe fruit of the plant, frequently used whole for pickling and spicing, or toasted and finely ground into the dried spice also known as coriander. Dried coriander seeds bear no resemblance in flavor to the fresh leaves. Fresh coriander leaves are delicate and lacy, imparting a unique soapy aroma that either attracts or repels, depending on which side of the cilantro fence you sit. Cilantro leaves are best served fresh and used as a final flourish to dishes, because their fragility does not lend well to the heat of cooking.
Cilantro is easy to grow, which helps to explain its abundance. It is a hardy annual herb and a member of the parsley family, related to other lacy-leaved plants such as fennel, dill, chervil and carrots. It bolts quickly in warm temperatures, so it's best grown in the spring or fall. As soon as it flowers, it makes seeds that can be harvested and replanted. With some planning and routine, cilantro can grow all season long.
So, why is this ancient, worldly herb so polarizing? There are theories that nature plays a role: Some people may be genetically predisposed to cilantro intolerance. This can manifest itself in an intense aversion to the aroma and flavor of the leaves, and, in rare cases, a physical reaction similar to my student's. For the rest of us, nurture or environment may be a factor. Chances are that if you were raised in a culture where coriander is a kitchen staple, you are a cilantro lover. If you had little exposure, cilantro might take some getting used to. It's worth the effort. Fueled by culinary curiosity, I have grown to love cilantro. Now, pots of coriander grow year round in my California garden, and I frequently cook with it while happily considering myself a cilantro convert. If King Tut passed into the afterlife accompanied by coriander seeds, then this herb is worthy of our respect.