One of the best parts about being a traveling food writer is discovering new dishes, bright tropical fruits, and ingredients you never knew existed. Unfortunately, I’m currently based in Nicaragua – a place where spicing up a local meal consists of putting the ubiquitous fried cheese inside of a tortilla or frying those rice and beans until you get crunchy bits of rice. It is not exactly a country where one finds many exciting new flavors – or so I thought until I went to the market and discovered culantro.
No, culantro is not cilantro, which I found out after a lot of interrogating in Spanglish.
I was tasked with cooking steak frites for 10 people, and being in a country that mostly lacks vegetables, herbs and spices in its cuisine, I wanted to add a little something more than salt for a change. So with the hopes of making chimichurr, I asked if there was any parsley. There was not. So I asked for cilantro. And the woman at the fruit stand replied, “No, but I have culantro,” and after much confusion she pulled out an herb that looked nothing like cilantro.
What is culantro?
Unlike cilantro, which has small, short, rounded leaves, culantro has long, serrated leaves. According to the University of Purdue, the two herbs are only very distantly related, yet culantro smells and tastes like an extra intense version of cilantro – which probably sounds awful if you’re one of those unfortunate souls for whom cilantro tastes like soap, but amazing if you’re a person who understands that cilantro is among the greatest of all herbs, making everything it touches fresh and delicious.
Where do I find it?
Virtually nonexistent in American cuisine, culantro is native to many Latin American countries as well as a few nations in Southeast Asia (where it’s known as spiny coriander). Culantro is a vital part of the cuisine in the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad and Tobago (where it’s called chadon beni), as well as Puerto Rico (called recao), where it’s used to make sofrito – a sauce used in just about everything. In countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, it’s commonly added to soups, noodles and curries, and used in chutneys.
How can I cook with it?
Culantro, if you can find it stateside, can be substituted for just about anything you’d use cilantro for – salsas, soups, tacos, eggs – basically anything you want to freshen up. Just be careful, as some estimates insist it’s 8 to 10 times stronger than its distant relative. Also, be careful of the serrated edges (I gave myself a painful little prick while chopping).
And, it turns out, it’s amazing as a green sauce similar to chimichurri. I threw it in a blender with some fresh mint, olive oil, garlic, chilies, salt and pepper and it was the happiest accident of my cooking life. I might start carrying it around to throw in my rice and beans and fried cheese tortillas.