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GARDEN FRESH

All the World Loves Cilantro : Piercing, complex and pure, it's the international herb

November 30, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

To me, the flavor of cilantro is a blend of flat-leaf parsley, juniper berries, mint and lovage (which is like celery with depth). Others have compared the flavor to orange peel and sage.

However you perceive it, cilantro is piercing, complex and pure and evokes a strong response. Some people loathe it, but most love it. Those who keep track of such things say cilantro's the most popular herb in the world.

Cilantro is a Spanish word (pronounced Mexican-style, since it first entered American cookery from Mexico). The leaves come from the coriander plant ( Coriandrum sativum ). The ground coriander used as a spice is the dried berry--at once the fruit and the seed--of the same plant. Some cuisines use coriander as an herb, others lean to the spice.

The herb form is used throughout Latin America, but it is particularly prominent in Mexico. This is because in pre-Columbian times, Aztec cooks used Lippia graveolens , a similar-looking herb that tastes like a very loud cilantro; it's still used, under the name culantro .

In Mexican cuisine, the leaves are thrown on an immense variety of dishes, starting with salsa. For example, in Diana Kennedy's "The Art of Mexican Cooking," I find chopped cilantro in zucchini with grated cheese, chicken with potatoes and green beans, shredded beef with tomatoes and mixed vegetables, in the hominy-and-tripe soup menudo and in a lively sauce of cactus paddles for shrimp fritters.

No wonder that here in California, bunches of cilantro are heaped as high at the market as bunches of parsley. Typically we top avocado halves with cilantro, sprinkle it over scrambled eggs, stir it into chili, add it to tomato sauce for pasta and toss it into all sorts of salads: cole slaw, potato, bean, chef's, even fruit. A bit of chopped cilantro added to Waldorf Salad (apples, celery and walnuts with mayonnaise) breathes new life into this American standard.

I find the clean fresh flavor of cilantro has a special affinity for citrus. Have you ever discovered what cilantro does for a salad with orange or grapefruit? And cilantro is great with lime juice. In the Caribbean, cilantro is often paired with lime. All you need for a breathtaking shrimp salad is a dressing of olive oil, lime juice, chopped green onions and cilantro.

I suppose the reason cilantro is so valued worldwide is that it's as successful with simple flavors as with those that are complex. As it gives body to the light tastes of rice and fish, it lightens the earthiness of dried beans and meat. It also has the capacity to pull a collection of flavors into sharp focus.

The Chinese, who embraced the plant 2,000 years ago, recognize this quality. Once upon a time, they served the leaves as a vegetable. Even today, a Sichuan recipe calls for a whole plant to be tucked inside a duckling before roasting. But most often, a handful of roughly chopped cilantro is added at the last minute to a stir-fry. Because it's so much a part of Chinese cuisine, one English name for cilantro is Chinese parsley.

Cilantro is used widely in Southeast Asia, notably in the bunch of herbs in the Vietnamese taco-like dish rolled up in rice crepes.

It has been said that cilantro is to Indian cookery what basil is to Italian. Like the pesto of Northern Italy that enhances everything from pastas to poached meats, a fresh chutney of coriander leaves ground with coconut, green chilies and fresh ginger turns the simplest dish into a poem.

From India to North Africa, from Kazakhstan to Arabia, the most common garnish on shish kebab is sliced onions with cilantro. In Turkey, chopped cilantro garnishes bulgur pilaf and egg-lemon soup. In Morocco, the leaves enhance braised squab, sweet pepper salads and goat cheese. It goes into stews and sauces in Iran and the Caucasus.

Even the tender stems are filled with flavor.

But this is a gardening column. Why, you may ask, should you bother growing coriander when you can get bunches of it so easily in supermarkets?

The answer: because there's more to enjoy from the plant than its leaves and stems. The roots, for instance, are one of the most common ingredients in Thai cuisine. For a unique seasoning to brush over chicken before grilling, pound coriander roots to a paste with equal parts garlic and pepper.

Cilantro should be used fresh; keeping it in the refrigerator is an uncertain business. Once in a while, I find they keep for a week plunged in a glass of water. More often, the branches wither in a couple of days. If you to grow coriander yourself, the flavor will be the finer for its freshness and you'll have a constant supply.

There are also the flowers; coriander's small blossoms are lacy white or pinkish umbrellas; they have a spicy flavor and make a beautiful garnish. The flowers bloom in mid-summer, just in time to be strewn over bright-colored fruits.

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