Culantro is an herb that has a similar aroma and flavor to cilantro, but they are not the same plant. It has long, serrated leaves and looks a bit like long-leafed lettuce. Culantro has a stronger flavor than cilantro and is therefore used in smaller amounts. Unlike cilantro, it can be added during cooking rather than afterward. You will find culantro specified in recipes for dishes from the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Asia.
What Is Culantro?
Culantro (Eryngium foetidum) grows similar to lettuce, with leaves around a central rosette. At the peak of its growth, a culantro plant can be 1 foot tall and the leaves as much as 2 inches wide, and it will produce a blue flower if permitted to bolt. Culantro is a member Apiaceae family, which includes carrots, celery, parsley, and parsnip. Culantro is used as both a culinary and medicinal herb. In food, the leaves are often added during cooking because it has a very strong flavor and aroma, which diminishes nicely under heat.
Culantro is native to the tropical areas of the Americas and the West Indies, unlike cilantro that originated in the Mediterranean and was introduced to the Americas after European colonization. Culantro goes by various names. 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 vs. Cilantro
Culantro is a botanical cousin of cilantro, but they look nothing alike. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is sometimes called Chinese parsley or Mexican parsley, and its seeds (coriander) are sometimes called Mexican coriander. While 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.
What Does It Taste Like?
Culantro has a pungent odor and bitter, soapy flavor similar to cilantro, but stronger. Many references say the odor is like crushed stinkbugs (skunky or burnt rubber) or crushed bedbugs (sweet, musty, and cilantro-like). With a description like that, it is apparent that this is a flavor that some love and some hate. A pungent element that would be distasteful on its own can add an extra dimension to the flavor of dishes.
Cooking With Culantro
The leaves are the desired part of the culantro plant for cooking. 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. It's interesting to note that in some recipes for Vietnamese beef noodle soup (pho), the roles of cilantro and culantro are reversed, with cilantro cooked while culantro (ngo gai in Vietnamese) is reserved for the garnish.
Recipes With Culantro
Culantro is a very popular herb in Caribbean cooking and a common ingredient in the fragrant herb and vegetable mix called sofrito. It can be found in Caribbean and South American recipes for stew. You will also find culantro in many Asian dishes.
Where to Buy 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.
Health Benefits of Culantro
Medicinally, culantro is reputed by some to have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Traditionally, it was used as a homegrown treatment for a variety of ailments.