"Extra cilantro, please", I said to the waiter preparing fresh guacamole for our table at the best Mexican restaurant in town.
I may love cilantro, the culinary herb consisting of the leaves of the coriander plant (Coriandrum sativum), but not everyone feels the same. (Julia Child, the famed "French Chef", hated cilantro.) To me, cilantro tastes peppery and slightly fruity. To some others, the herb tastes soapy and unpleasant. Recent research suggests that genetic differences between tasters may explain the different reactions; those that do not like the taste of cilantro are repelled by the unsaturated aldehydes present in the leaves. It is normal for people to have different taste preferences, but cilantro appears to exhibit almost a violent taste reaction in some.
The good thing about cilantro, though, is that even if you don't like the taste of the plant leaves, you may appreciate the more subtle taste of the dried fruit, called coriander in the United States (in some countries, both the leaves and the fruit are referred to as "coriander"). The taste of ground coriander fruit has been described as "citrus-like". The two parts of the plant are distinctly different in chemical composition, thereby accounting for the differences in taste. Therefore, it is not recommended to substitute one plant part for another in a recipe!
The medicinal properties of the cilantro leaves and the coriander fruit differ as well. Claims have been made for the efficacy of cilantro leaves against arthritis and indigestion, and one study found cilantro essential oil to have antibacterial effects against the food pathogen Listeria. However, published clinical trials have not really backed up the antimicrobial and medicinal claims of cilantro.
The coriander fruit, on the other hand, shows promise as an antimicrobial, insect repellent, and a medicinal herb. Clinical trials have described the effects of the essential oil from coriander seeds against skin conditions. The essential oil is sold by alternative health dealers and is claimed to have therapeutic effects against many illnesses.
Do you prefer to add cilantro or coriander to your foods? Would you use either one as an herbal remedy?
Photo: Coriander seeds and cilantro leaves. USDA-ARS