Secret Ingredient – Culantro

It’s incredible the difference one letter can make. Culantro, (no, it isn’t a typo), sometimes called spiny cilantro, broad-leaf cilantro, long-leaf coriander, saw-tooth mint, recao or chadon beni, is a distant cousin of cilantro. It is native to the tropical areas of the Americas and West Indies, unlike cilantro, which is Mediterranean. Its leaves are long and serrated, making it look like long-leaf lettuce. Culantro has a pungent aroma and citrusy flavor similar to cilantro but is about 10 times stronger and can be added during cooking rather than strictly afterward. This herb can handle high heat, unlike its cousin. If you’re wondering about the “soap” gene, some people will think culantro tastes soapy, though these theories are still being tested — some say it has the opposite effect. But if you like cilantro, you should also like culantro. Even if you find it soapy, its pungent element that could be distasteful on its own can add an extra flavor dimension to dishes. And the longer cooked, the less pungent it becomes.

The leaves are the desired part of the culantro plant for cooking. You can cook culantro into almost any dish you would otherwise finish with cilantro, though using less culantro than cilantro is recommended when substituting. In some recipes for Vietnamese beef noodle soup, or pho, the roles of cilantro and culantro are reversed, with cilantro cooked while culantro is reserved for the garnish. Culantro is a prevalent herb in Caribbean cooking and a common ingredient in the fragrant herb and vegetable mix called sofrito. Culantro also can be found in Caribbean and South American stews and many Asian dishes. It even has uses beyond cooking. When steeped into a tea, it can soothe symptoms of colds, flu and upset stomachs. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory rich in calcium, riboflavin, iron, carotene and vitamins A, B and C.

While culantro isn’t as widely available in the U.S. as its cousin, it is at Don Juan on Hilton Head and GFF Asian Store in Beaufort. Publix and Walmart also stock it frequently. You’ll usually find it sold in mixed herb packages or stacks of leaves. You can also plant it at home and grow fresh leaves for yourself. It’s a pretty easy herb to grow since it thrives in hot, humid environments, and with seeds readily available, you can keep propagating culantro for years. Fresh culantro should be wrapped in paper towels and refrigerated in plastic bags or air-tight containers. Rinse and pat dry the leaves before cooking. Fresh leaves should be good for about a week when stored properly.

Culantro (Apiaceae). Culantro vegetable leaves plants background. Sawtooth coriander

Ways to cook with cilantro

  • Cut it into a chiffonade and add it to a salad or use it as a garnish.
  • Add chopped culantro to any dish when sautéeing onions or garlic. 
  • Flavor savory dishes by adding culantro to marinades, sofrito or sauces.
  • Use it raw and finely chopped in salsa, guacamole and other dips.
  • Add culantro to rice, stews and other hearty and savory dishes by adding it whole and cooking it down to release the flavors. 
  • Use it as a garnish in your favorite pho recipe.
  • Use it instead of cilantro in any recipe; just use 10 times less. 

Chef’s Tip

“Culantro is an interesting herb I like to use. It’s a cousin of cilantro but a little more dark green with long serrated leaves. I use it in marinades for meats.”  – Chef Josh Castillo, Charlie’s Coastal Bistro

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