Many of us love the taste of cilantro (many don’t), but find it hard to grow. Most recipe applications call for using the foliage, but when weather turns hot, the plant bolts to flower and seed. That causes the foliage to begin to deteriorate, and it’s no longer as tasty as before bolting. Some Southeast Asia recipes call for using roots of cilantro, and for those growers the root is easier than the foliage because bolting destroys the foliage, but not the roots.
Cilantro is often associated with Mexican food, but that plant is not native to Mexico or even the Americas. It was introduced to Mexico by Chinese working in silver mines of Mexico and South America in the 16th century. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and a band through the eastern Middle East to Southeast Asia, roughly along the Silk Road. Some folks are allergic to it, but most of the cilantro-haters taste it as rotten or soapy. It seems to be a physiological difference in “tasters” among humans, not just pickiness.
Theoretically, those of us who love cilantro could be growing cilantro outdoors now in containers, bringing it indoors when frost threatens. In the past we’ve had hot days in May that spark bolting in spinach, lettuce and cilantro. Those days can occur in April, too.
When cilantro goes to seed, the seeds are useful in the kitchen because seeds are called coriander, a culinary spice. Some cultures call this useful herb “green coriander” for obvious reasons. Fortunately, our supermarkets carry bunches of cilantro leaves for hot weather cooking, but is that our only option? Once harvested, leaves begin to deteriorate quickly. There are alternatives that we could grow, even through hot weather.
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Alternatives to get that flavor include culantro (Eryngium foetidum), Rau Ram or Vietnamese coriander, Papaloquelite and another, new to me, Pepicha.
Seeds for the latter are now on order from Richters. Culantro is native to Central America, and has tough thorny leaves that, when sliced and chopped are very tasty and tender. It can take our summer’s heat, and the flavor holds up through dehydration and cooking better than the leafy cilantro.
Papaloquelite, also known as Papalo, Quilquina, Killi and Yerba porosa, has a strong flavor when leaves are mature, but younger leaves are milder in flavor.
It’s usually served raw or very late in the cooking process. Alice Waters, renowned chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., introduced it enthusiastically to her patrons a few years ago. In the state of Puebla, Mexico, it’s often served in a vial of water on each table so patrons can spice up their salsas, guacamole, salads, beans or soups by tearing leaves into the food.
Papaloquelite produces copious balls of feathery seeds in autumn, but the year I grew it, seeds did not survive our winter.
It grows wild in Central and South America, and is not bothered by leaf-chewing insects because this herb has oil glands on the backs of the leaves that insects apparently find distasteful. Germination is spotty unless the feathery “parachute” is intact.
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