GEORGE OLIVER (this article was first published November 29, 2012)
I remember the first time I ate cilantro. It was in the autumn of 1976, after the fall of Saigon. I was a 30-year-old English teacher for Catholic Charities in post–Vietnam War New Orleans; the church was picking up the slack as an inrush of Vietnamese immigrants strained public social services. My students included many elderly Vietnamese (particularly women) who were illiterate in their own language but who were required to learn English to get any government help. We met for our lessons in small groups in private homes in eastern New Orleans. I had a bilingual Vietnamese assistant who helped me bridge the cultural and language divide.
After a couple of months of weekly repetitions of “How old are you, Mrs. Nguyen” and “How much is the fish”, the classroom bonds started to set, and the students, many of whom were much older than I, began to relax with me. Once I had the students’ confidence, I was invited to have lunch with them one day after class. I assumed it would be at one of their homes. I had never read about, much less tasted, Vietnamese food, so my curiosity was high.
At the appointed afternoon, we walked down the street to a nondescript ranch-style house. Once inside, it was clear this was not just a home. There were small round tables in the living room set with white tablecloths and condiments that reminded me of a Chinese restaurant. It was clearly an eating establishment of some sort, but there was no greeter, no menu, no obvious waitstaff, and no cash register or money changing hands.
This setup was, as I learned, a critical link in the immigrants’ emotional survival in their strange new home. Every Vietnamese neighborhood in eastern New Orleans, it turned out, had these indie restaurant circuits, which served to give the immigrants something culturally familiar, as well as a social gathering place. Apparently, the location of the “restaurant” could change homes as necessary to thwart the legal radar. Only the residents knew where the restaurants were in the neighborhood, so bringing me there was a sign of their trust and respect for me.
After I sat for a few minutes trying pathetically to mimic the names of a few Vietnamese food dishes, the first course came, a small plate of what looked like two unfried egg rolls. Standard egg rolls I knew, but here were semi-transparent, raw rice paper wrappers that allowed you to see into the inside of the rolls. This was really new food for me in a city that only knew Chinese as Asian cuisine in the 70s.
Inside the rolls were shrimp and a green herb that I took for parsley but which I quickly found out wasn’t. The first bite startled me unpleasantly. In fact, I nearly gagged. For one who prided himself on eating almost anything, I found this taste too funky and acrid. I ate as much as I could, but I’m sure it was clear to my students I wasn’t enjoying my new-found “egg rolls”.
- Vietnamese spring rolls are encased in translucent rice paper. By Arashiyama (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Then they brought out a steaming bowl of soup, common to many of us now in Vietnamese pho restaurants. In the soup floated this same herb. The light broth, noodles, and pieces of meat were vaguely familiar, but my distaste for the weird parsley spoiled the dish for me, and spoiled the moment. I was embarrassed; I felt like I had let my class down.
In retrospect, I can’t remember ever encountering cilantro up to that point in either a Chinese or Latin restaurant in New Orleans in the 1970s. It was likely available in an ‘oriental’ market, but at that time, these were unknown to me. As I discovered much later, there is an herb with a similar taste known in this country as Vietnamese coriander, or rau răm in Vietnamese. It would have been impossible for my students to get their native herb in New Orleans in the 70s; for all I know, my students bought their “Chinese parsley” (as it was called back then) from the large Schwegmann’s supermarket in Gentilly.
I didn’t encounter cilantro again until I moved to the DC area in the mid-1980s. By then there were a few Vietnamese restaurants in the Northern Virginia area. I went with a friend to a restaurant that specialized in pho and when the soup came, seeing it brought back unpleasant memories of that soup 10 years earlier. Mercifully, the herb was served as a separate garnish with basil and peppers.
This time, however, either my tastes or the cilantro had changed, or else my memory of cilantro was so harsh that no sprig could have lived up to it. I tried a bit in the pho, and it was okay. Not great, but okay. Since then, I’ve learned to love cilantro and I use it often in salsa, curry, and fried rice.
I’m not alone with my hate/love history of cilantro. Some friends can take it or leave it, usually the latter; other friends who like it find creative ways to use it. The taste often is described as soapy, fetid, and bitter; although the word “cilantro” is Spanish, it’s probably from the Greek word “korios” meaning ‘bug’; apparently even the ancient Greeks found the smell and taste odd. Part of the buggy taste is related to compounds known as aldehydes, also found in some insects. Cilantro has all this weirdness and more. Sometimes you can detect overtones of citrus, parsley, and celery.
There has been some discussion recently about a genetic component to cilantrophobia, namely that a minority of the population has the capacity to taste only the nasty components in cilantro without being able to taste the pleasant ones for balance. Perhaps, but that leaves out the capacity of humans to overcome their food dislikes. Certainly my experience was exactly that: I began my cilantro tasting tale with a gag reflex, but it has morphed into a real affection for its oddness. Haters might sneer, but those who tune into its odd taste are hooked.
While many of us were introduced to cilantro as a culinary herb, cilantro’s seed, usually called coriander, has a long history in the West as a medicinal herb. Traditionally, it’s supposed to be a digestive aid and good for fighting flatulence, a good reason to garnish a plate of beans and rice with it. Its antibacterial properties were known by Charlemagne; Greeks and Romans thought it was also an aphrodisiaic—perhaps the fact that it can have a narcotic effect in large quantities contributed to this. I’ve read some claims about its anti-toxin qualities, especially against heavy metals in the body.
Whatever its other merits, it’s easy to grow in your garden (or a barrel), both for the roots, which are called for in some Indian dishes, the leaves, and for the coriander seeds. It grows easily from seed planted directly in the ground; in fact, it is best grown that way since it doesn’t transplant well.
Cilantro is also cold hardy: it lasts well into early winter and comes up quickly in the spring. In most parts of the deep South, you may even get a second harvest after it’s gone to seed and resprouted before serious winter sets in.
As a bonus, I’ve found another reason to grow it yourself. You can pick the green coriander seeds (technically they’re the fruit) and use them; they have a flavor between cilantro and coriander. Since they are very difficult to buy (and would be difficult to store), growing cilantro is about the only way to get green seeds. They really are an underappreciated stage of the plant.
Cilantro leaf does not dry well, so it needs to be used fresh; neither does it hold up well under heat. The best use for it is the simplest treatment where the taste can shine through: as a garnish, raw in a cold sauce, in fresh rice-paper rolls.
If you’re not yet an aficionado, I sympathize. If and when your love for it and faith in it does kick in, you’ll get the cilantro fever and use it often. Just show some pity on your non-believing friends.
Some simple uses: pair chopped leaves (or green seeds) with lime juice and pepper for a simple sauce for fish or chicken. Or add to sour cream to garnish a bowl of chili. Or to yogurt to garnish a curry. Add them to commercial salsa (with extra Tabasco). Make cilantro pesto or cilantro butter. Add some chopped leaves to potato salad instead of, or in addition to, fresh parsley. Make fresh cilantro mayo in a blender (with some fresh chilis) for a sandwich spread.