When we vacationed one year in Costa Rica, it seemed like every dish contained cilantro, whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner. In fact, it is very easy to eat almost the exact same menu for all three meals. Here’s a photo I took of our typical Tico (Costa Rican) breakfast:
I’ve been trying to recreate some of the dishes I had in Costa Rica, so I’ve been using a lot more cilantro than usual. When I looked at all of the herbs I’ve chosen to feature on my website, I was surprised that I had skipped this one, since I use it in so many dishes myself. But, before we discuss the health benefits, there are a few details you might want to know.
First, cilantro is also known as Chinese parsley or coriander. In the U.S., we call the leaves cilantro and the seeds coriander. The leaves are very fragile and have a delicate flavor that dissipates the longer they are stored. Therefore, use fresh cilantro shortly after purchasing and don’t bother with dried cilantro, which is virtually tasteless.
Cilantro leaves are used extensively in Latin American cuisines, and in Asian, African, and Middle-Eastern dishes as well. Even the Portuguese use cilantro generously, probably due to the African influences there.
My son complained once to me about cilantro. He doesn’t like to buy it because it goes bad so quickly. As a poor graduate student, he couldn’t waste his money on foods he might have to throw out. My solution: don’t be afraid to use large amounts. When a recipe calls for 1 to 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro, I use 1/4 to 1/2 cup instead. In some dishes, I even throw in the whole batch! Remember though, the taste and intensity of flavor can vary depending on how fresh the cilantro is, and some people really don’t care for it.
I have to admit that when I was a kid, I thought cilantro tasted like soap, and I wouldn’t touch it. Now, my taste buds have adjusted or perhaps been destroyed enough to make it palatable to me. I have grown to like the flavor, even if it still occasionally reminds me of soap.
I thought it was interesting to read in The Modern Herbal (from 1931), that the word “coriander” actually comes from the Greek word, koros, meaning bug, “in reference to the fetid smell of the leaves.”(1) Apparently, many people find cilantro’s taste soapy and offensive, but why?
In short, cilantro is rich in antioxidants, flavonoids and volatile oils, which contribute to its many health benefits. However, some of those oils are from aldehydes, molecules also found in soaps. Many bugs secrete strong-smelling aldehydes to repel or attract other bugs, which is why it smells like “bug-infested bedclothes”(2) to some people.
According to one neuroscientist, our brain can become accustomed to a taste or smell, and once we recognize it as something good for us, our reaction to it changes. I guess that’s why I can now eat cilantro without being repulsed, and instead actually enjoy it!
Cilantro is one of the herbs I recommend in my detoxes. It is very helpful in removing toxins from the body, especially heavy metals. It has been shown to help prevent the accumulation of lead and mercury in the body, and to actually aid in its removal. It also has antimicrobial properties which keep food from spoiling and even deter the development of salmonella!
It is rich in vitamins A, C and K, which support healthy tissues, blood vessels, eyes, bones. Cilantro also contains B vitamins that support metabolic processes and help relieve stress. A good source of many minerals, in particular potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, and magnesium, cilantro supports heart and cellular health. It’s a great source of nutrients, flavor and fiber with almost no calories!
Coriander (at least in the U.S.) is the seed of the plant, which is dried, ground and used like a spice. It has a completely different taste from the leaves and is a key component of curry powder and garam masala. It’s used in many other Middle-Eastern and Asian cuisines, usually in combination with other spices. It adds a balancing coolness to hot stimulating foods. Medicinally, it is used primarily as a carminative (relieves gas), a diuretic (increases urine flow), and an alterative (blood purifier). The seeds can be steeped in water to make a tea to treat fevers. Just check the recipe carefully to make sure the term coriander is referring to the spice (seeds) and not the herb (leaves).
(1) Grieve, A Modern Herbal (©1931)
(2) McGee, H. “Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault.” NY Times. April 13, 2010. From www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/dining/14curious.html
Tierra, The Way of Herbs (©1980)