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What is Cilantro? A Definitive Guide to a Divisive Herb

BY: Charles Austin | Feb 1, 2017

What is cilantro? Well, it’s complicated. As is the question of how to differentiate between cilantro and parsley, not to mention why cilantro tastes weird to some people.

Fortunately, we’re here to answer these questions and demystify the divisive herb.

What Is Cilantro? A Cultural Debate

The answer to what is cilantro depends on who—and where—you ask. If you’re in the United States, the leaves of the coriander plant are called cilantro, while the plant and its seeds are usually called coriander. In the United Kingdom, however, they don’t make this distinction, opting to call the plant coriander, leaves and all.

Either way you look at it, though, the plant is an annual herb in the family apiaceae, the same as cumin, dill, fennel, and anise.

Cilantro vs. Parsley

At first glance, the leaves of parsley and cilantro may look nearly identical. But there’s a handy mnemonic device to tell them apart. Parsley has pointed leaves, cilantro has curved leaves. Just remember the letters P and C.

Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap to Some People?

Does cilantro taste like soap, or even bugs, to you? If your friends’ love for this stomach-churning herb confuses you, don’t fret. There may be a neurological reason for your revulsion.

As a New York Times report states, chemists have attributed most of cilantro’s aroma to aldehydes, fat molecules also found in soaps, lotions, and bugs. So it’s possible that many of our brains sense these aldehydes and perceive cilantro as a threat to our health, provoking a negative reaction meant to stop us from consuming toxic cleaning solvents or slimy bugs.

This description of a soapy, buggy herb could turn even a cilantro die-hard into a skeptic. But there’s nothing threatening about cilantro, and it is possible for those with cilantro aversions to retrain their brains to no longer identify the herb as an unpleasant danger. We recommend crushing the leaves up to diminish the smell.

How to Use Cilantro

What is cilantro used for? The answer varies, because the styles of cuisine that use cilantro are so diverse. You might see it in guacamole at a Mexican restaurant or a Thai green curry. You can add chopped cilantro to sour cream for more flavorful chili, or mix it into cream cheese to spread over a bagel.

If you’re keeping things healthy, you can add a little chopped cilantro to a vinaigrette or citrusy dressing, or even toss some into a smoothie, as its antimicrobial oils may help detoxify the body.

Guide Staff Writer
BY: Charles Austin
Guide Staff Writer