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Herb That Says Mexico : Cilantro Is Also Important to Other Cuisines of World

October 08, 1992|KITTY MORSE

Perhaps no other herb defines Mexican cuisine better than cilantro, otherwise known as fresh coriander, and Chinese or Mexican parsley.

Indeed, no self-respecting Mexican salsa is complete without a touch of chopped cilantro. Neither is a Vietnamese spring roll, a Moroccan stew, nor a bowl of Thai noodle soup. Yet, many still label this ubiquitous herb as "exotic," and it remains a relative unknown to a majority of cooks.

Southern Californians, however, are well-acquainted with the sweet, pungent flavor of cilantro, whether they use it personally, or savor it in the multitude of ethnic restaurants dotting the landscape.

To further confuse the issue, this most fragrant of herbs actually boasts a dual personality: When sold in the form of seeds, it is called coriander. As such, it imparts a spicy, citrus-like taste, to pastries, preserves and liqueurs, and is a popular flavoring in many European dishes. Indian cuisine is redolent of coriander seeds, whether crushed or whole, in garam masala and curry powders, two essential spices in India's cookery.

Cilantro, the Spanish name for the most fragrant of herbs, is purported to derive from the Greek word "koros" or "wood-bug." The Chinese on the other hand, call it Yuen Tsai, which means fragrant herb or fragrant vegetable. In times past, Chinese diners believed eating the eponymous parsley would confer immortality.

In some parts of the Middle East, the flat, parsley-like leaf sometimes doubles as breath-freshener. There too, the plant's tiny, rose-tinted blooms are often chopped up along with the leaves to add extra flavor to a dish.

Cilantro is also an essential flavoring in the cuisine of Southeast Asia.

"Vietnamese food wouldn't taste right without cilantro," said Vietnamese-born Thao McLaughlin, owner of the Saigon Market in Vista. McLaughlin expounds on the use of the herb in her native cuisine, especially in crunchy spring rolls, one of the best-known Vietnamese specialties.

The flavorful rolls, filled with a mixture of "ground pork, grated jicama, onion, black mushroom, and bean threads," are deep-fried, then traditionally wrapped inside a leaf of lettuce garnished with sprigs of mint and cilantro leaves. McLaughlin keeps generous bunches of the fragrant herb in a large cooler at the back of her well-stocked market.

She uses cilantro liberally in soups and stir fries. "Be sure to add it at the end of the cooking time," she says, "or it will lose its flavor."

Stephanie Caughlin of Seabreeze Organic Farm in Del Mar, also likes to use lots of cilantro in her cooking. She adds up to half a cup of the chopped herb to a bowl of Mexican meatball soup; she substitutes fresh-chopped cilantro leaves for the lettuce usually added to tacos.

"I place two to three cups of chopped cilantro on the tale, and encourage my guests to add it to their soup or to their taco," she says.

Not only is cilantro flavorful, but it is also very easy to grow, according to Caughlin. "It's easy to flower, and it is easy to go to seed," she said.

Growing cilantro takes as much water and fertilizer as it does to grow lettuce, she said.

"Instead of transplanting seedlings, I direct-seed a bed since cilantro is quite slow to germinate. I cover the seed with 1/2 inch of soil, and I use double plantings. I then have cilantro growing for weeks and weeks."

Unlike most farmers, Caughlin harvests her cilantro with the roots attached, which she says is the best way. Pulling up the roots, then cleaning off the soil is a labor-intensive proposition, and one most commercial growers would rather not indulge in. Cilantro plants will grow longer by pinching off the leaves, but that may cause the plant to to go to flower sooner.

"Each plant is a one-time shot. It's as special as edible flowers."

At the Herban Garden nursery in Rainbow, cilantro is only second to basil in popularity: "We sell tons of cilantro," says co-owner Jeanne Dunn.

In Europe, where the seed was used as a flavoring for pastries and breads, the plant was bred to go to seed quickly, since only the seed was used, she says.

Nowadays, the increasing popularity of Mexican and Southeast Asian cuisines has created more demand for fresh cilantro leaves, leading to the development of a different variety of cilantro, known as the "longstanding" variety.

These newer strains have longer-lasting leaves and don't flower as quickly, says Dunn. Cilantro tends to bloom more quickly in hot weather, although it prefers cooler temperatures. Cilantro, along with more than 100 other herb varieties, will be featured at the Herb Harvest Festival held at the Herban Garden on Oct. 10 and 11, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Craft booths, live music and herbal beauty products are among the attractions planned. A luncheon of herb-scented soups and breads will be available for a small fee.

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