Did you know that two different herbs, cilantro and coriander, come from the same plant? It’s true. The leaves of the plant Coriandrum sativum are called cilantro which looks a lot like parsley, a relative. The seeds, however, are known as coriander.
Cilantro is known by many names, including Chinese parsley, coriander leaves, fresh coriander or dhania.
The coriander plant is rooted, so to speak, thousands of years ago, in ancient Persia. The annual herb spread to southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia before crossing the Atlantic into the New World:
“Dried traces of cilantro were found in a cave in Israel that dated to around 6,000 BC. Remnants have also been found in ancient Egypt, showing that its use was widespread even in ancient civilizations…cilantro was brought to the early British colonies in North America in 1670, making it one of the first spices to be cultivated by the early settlers.”
Because cilantro and parsley look so much alike, one sure-fire way to tell them apart is by smell. Once you have identified the distinctive fragrance and taste of cilantro, you will recognize it as an ingredient in many foods, including guacamole, salsa, curries, and noodle dishes.
Truly, there is no aroma quite like the smell of fresh cilantro – one of my favorites!
Cilantro leaves don’t keep well and are best used freshly cut. They spoil soon after being removed from the plant. Freezing and drying them only speeds up the decaying process.
Many foodies grow their own mini herb garden or cultivate in small pots. Cilantro is an annual plant, which means that it dies after seeding and must be replanted every year. But, considering how delicious it is and that the entire plant is edible, having your own personal stash is worth the modest effort. Even the chopped stems away add flavor and nutrition to a pot of soup or salad.
During the growing season, snip off individual leaves with some scissors. After a coriander plant produces flowers and seeds, the leaves develop a stronger flavor. At the end of the growing season, dig or pull the entire plant, roots and all, from the soil.
For the non-gardener, both cilantro and coriander are available year-round in groceries and farmer’s markets. When selecting fresh cilantro, choose vibrant green leaves and pass on anything turning yellow. The freshest stems are firm and become limp with age.
Cilantro leaves contain powerful antioxidants (to fight free radicals and aging), anti-inflammatories (to quiet infections), and antibacterials (to kill germs).
The leafy green is also very healthy. A quarter-cup of fresh cilantro contains almost no saturated fat, cholesterol or calories and provides the following essential nutrients:
- Vitamin A: 270 IU
- Vitamin K: 12.4 mcg (16% of the RDV)
- Folate: 2.5 mcg
- Potassium: 20.8 mg
Vitamin K and calcium help build strong bones, teeth, and hair. Vitamin K is also vital for normal blood clotting.
People on sodium-restricted diets may find cilantro to be a satisfying salt substitute. The herb is also linked to lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, aids digestion, relieves nausea, and promotes heart health.
Coriander seeds are quite pungent, with a scent that has been described as a combination of sweet, peppery, and citrus. The seeds are a main ingredient in garam masala, the spice mix featured in cuisine from India.
Coriander is a mainstay of Middle Eastern, Chinese, Thai, Burmese, Mexican, Russian, Portuguese, and Indian cuisine. The seeds are commonly added to preservative spices when pickling vegetables (such as dill pickles).
Coriander seeds contain a goodly amount of dietary fiber, calcium, selenium, magnesium, and iron.
Since heat reduces the flavor and taste of cilantro, add it at the end of cooking.
Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the distinctive tastes of cilantro and coriander. Some people, notably the famous American chef Julia Child, have reported that both the leaves and seeds have a bad smell, like soap or dirt.
Research suggests that this aversion may run in the family. A study from Cornell University identified a “genetic component to cilantro taste perception” due to “genetic variants in olfactory receptors.”
In plain English: “Some people are born with no taste for this plant.”
If you like cilantro like I like cilantro, check out these 54 mouth-watering recipes that “prove the existence of soulmates” from Bon Appetit.
For all you coriander fans, wrap your lips around this yummy dessert recipe from Serious Eats for “Pistachio Millionaire’s Shortbread With Coriander Butterscotch.”
Fresh, dried, or ground, open your mind – and your mouth – to the earthly delights found in the humble-yet-virtuous coriander plant.