Contrary to popular belief, culantro is not an alternate spelling of cilantro. Culantro and cilantro are not the same plants, though they are in the same botanical family, have a similar aroma and flavor, and both are used in cooking. When you see culantro, there is no mistaking it for the more common cilantro.
What Is Culantro?
Culantro, Eryngium foetidum, has long, serrated leaves and sports a blue flower when permitted to bolt. It actually looks a bit like a long-leafed lettuce and grows in a similar manner, from a centralized rosette. At the peak of its growth, a culantro plant can be one-foot tall and the leaves as much as two-inches wide.
Culantro is a member Apiaceae family, which includes carrots, celery, parsley, and parsnip. Similar to parsley, it is a biennial plant that likely originated in the Mediterranean. During colonization, it was brought to the Americas and became an integral part of Caribbean and Latin American cuisines.
Culantro does go by various names, which only adds to the confusion. You might hear it called spiny cilantro, long-leafed coriander, or saw-toothed mint. In Spanish, it is sometimes called, cilantro de hoja ancha, meaning "broadleaf cilantro." In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the name recao is also common and in some parts of the Caribbean, it is known as chandon beni. Depending on the country you're in, culantro may go by other names as well.
Culantro is used as both a culinary and medicinal herb. In food, it is often added during cooking because it has a very strong flavor and aroma, which diminishes nicely under heat. Medicinally, culantro is known for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Differences Between Culantro and Cilantro
Culantro is a completely different plant from cilantro. The two are botanical cousins (though not in the same genus) and look nothing alike, so it's easy to differentiate them by appearance.
Cilantro, Coriandrum sativum, also belongs to the Apiaceae family. It, too, goes by several names, including Chinese parsley and Mexican parsley and its seeds (coriander) are sometimes called Mexican coriander.
Where culantro has long leaves that grow in rosettes, cilantro has thin scallop-shaped leaves that grow on the tips of long, very thin stems. Additionally, cilantro is an annual plant, not a biennial like culantro.
Though the flavor and aroma of the two herbs are comparable, you'll notice that culantro is significantly more pungent than cilantro. Some people say it's even 10 times stronger, which is apparent in how the two are used in food recipes. While culantro can handle the high heat of cooking, cilantro is a very delicate herb, which is why it's often applied to food after cooking.
Using Culantro in Recipes
The leaves are the desired part of the culantro plant for cooking. It is a very popular herb in Caribbean cooking and a common ingredient in the fragrant herb and vegetable mix called sofrito. There are many recipes for this staple seasoning, including a Caribbean sofrito that pairs the herb with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic.
Culantro makes an excellent addition to a variety of recipes. You can cook it into almost any dish that you would otherwise finish with cilantro, though using less culantro than cilantro is recommended when substituting.
You will also find culantro in many Asian dishes. It's interesting that this Vietnamese beef noodle soup (pho) recipe reverses the roles of cilantro and culantro. In it, cilantro is cooked in while culantro (ngo gai in Vietnamese) is reserved for the garnish.
Selecting and Storing Culantro
Culantro is not as widely available as cilantro, particularly outside the Caribbean and Latin America. You'll have better luck finding it at international markets. Check with your market's produce manager if you do not see any on the shelves with other fresh herbs.
Culantro is a rather easy herb to grow, so you might consider that option as well. Seeds are readily available and if you want to collect your own, let the flowers go to seed at the end of the second year (remember, it's a biennial). Plant those seeds and, if you're lucky, you can keep propagating culantro for years using this routine.
Fresh culantro can be wrapped in paper towels and refrigerated in plastic bags or air-tight containers. Rinse and pat dry the leaves before cooking. You can expect culantro to be good for about a week when stored properly.