Cilantro and culantro are both fresh herbs whose names are so similar it looks like a typo. But these two plants are very different and provide a unique flavor to the dishes they are used in.
In most US grocery stores it’s easy to find cilantro for sale in the produce aisle, but culantro isn’t something you encounter every day.
For many Americans, culantro may look like a typo in the new recipe you are trying out, but in fact, it’s not. Culantro, like cilantro, is a green herb that’s a member of the apiaceae family, with a strong smell and pungent flavor but it is very different from the cilantro you know.
To make sure you’re getting just the right flavor for your recipe, here’s how to tell the difference between the two herbs with very similar names.
What is Cilantro?
Cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley, is a leafy green plant. It also goes by the name coriandrum sativum, and is the leafy part of the coriander plant.
It’s a common herb in the United States and is popular in many Latin American, Mediterranean, and Asian dishes.
What is Culantro?
Culantro’s scientific name is Eryngium foetidum. It’s a tropical herb common in the Caribbean and Latin America. It goes by many nicknames including long-leafed coriander, ngo gai, cilantro de hoja ancha, Mexican coriander, sawtooth coriander, saw-toothed mint, recao, spiny cilantro, and chadon beni.
Culantro has a flavor that is similar to cilantro but stronger and with a heartier texture. Culantro leaves lend a complex bittersweet flavor to dishes.
Both cilantro and culantro are part of the apiacaea family which also includes carrots, turnips, and parsley, but they are very different plants within the same family.
Culantro is a tropical herb that is native in parts of the world like the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and tropical regions of South America. It was brought to Southeast Asia and has become a popular ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese recipes.
Cilantro is a big part of many Mexican dishes but it is native to southern Europe and northern Africa. It may have been brought to Mexico by Spanish settlers.
Cilantro is an annual herb. This means it has a very short growing season and has to be replanted each year.
When it grows, cilantro reaches heights of 18 to 30 inches tall before it begins to flower and produces seeds (coriander seeds).
The cilantro plant is a delicate herb that grows slender stems with a broad leaf at the end about the size of a quarter.
Culantro grows more like lettuce. It is low to the ground (though it can be as tall as two feet) and the leaves develop from the center. As the plant matures, leaves are gathered from the outer edges.
Culantro is a perennial herb which means it has a longer growing and harvesting time than cilantro.
One of the main differences between cilantro and culantro is its appearance. Cilantro leaves are soft and broad, growing at the end of delicate stems. The leaves resemble feathers and have a light green color.
Cilantro is often confused with parsley leaves in the grocery store. Both have delicate leaves, though cilantro leaves are more full.
Culantro, on the other hand, grows in thick, spiny, serrated leaves. The small spines can be prickly if not harvested correctly.
Each of the leaves on the culantro is long and hearty. The texture is much thicker than cilantro.
Cilantro has a very noticeable intense flavor that you either love or hate. It is a flavor that is debated by many chefs around the world.
People who love cilantro describe it as fresh and crisp with a slightly citrusy flavor, while people who hate it say it tastes like soap.
That soapy flavor is due to a genetic predisposition that unfortunately cannot be helped. It makes the flavor of cilantro unbearable for many.
Culantro isn’t as highly debated though most people say it has a flavor similar to cilantro, but stronger. The strength of the flavor may be a welcome addition for those who enjoy cilantro, while it may make it a hard no for those who hate cilantro.
Some people who dislike cilantro do not have the same genetic aversion to culantro and actually find the flavor of culantro bearable. They may even use it as a substitute.
Culantro is not a direct substitute for cilantro. Because it has a much stronger flavor, you may need to use half as much culantro as cilantro, though they have a similar flavor.
Just like culantro has a stronger flavor than cilantro, it also has a stronger smell. Some people describe the smell of culantro as earthy while some find it overpowering and bitter.
Cilantro has a fresh, slightly sweet smell like many other fresh herbs. The same soapy taste some people experience may be present in the smell if cilantro as well.
Cilantro is used in a wide variety of Latin and Asian dishes. It adds a fresh flavor to the recipe and is often used as a bright green garnish. It can be cooked but is most often used fresh.
To use cilantro for cooking most chefs remove the leaves from the stem and chop up the leaves, though the stem is perfectly edible.
Culantro is more hardy than cilantro, which makes it a great addition to recipes like soups and stews.
Culantro is often used in sofrito, a popular Puerto Rican recipe, and marinades and sauces. Its extravagant flavor can stand out even when cooked into a flavorful stew.
Cilantro and culantro are both a healthy addition to a meal. Both are packed with vitamins A, C, K as well as iron, potassium, and calcium. They also contain plenty of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
Traditionally people have believed cilantro can be used as a medicinal herb to detoxify the body, improve digestion, and treat nausea, while culantro is known for antibacterial and antifungal properties and has been used to treat infections and high blood pressure.
Cilantro and culantro have similar flavors but they are not a direct substitute for one another.
Culantro has a stronger flavor than cilantro, so if you are trying to use it as a substitute it’s a good idea to use half as much as the recipe calls for.
Cilantro does not make a good substitute for culantro because the texture is not as hardy and the flavor is not as strong.
You may be able to locate culantro at a specialty or Asian grocery store. You may also have some luck growing it in your own yard. Culantro does well in tropical climates, so be sure it gets plenty of water and shade.
You may also be able to purchase dried culantro online. This is a great option to add to stews and marinades.