Cilantro

By Hanna Raskin

hraskin@postandcourier.com

How polarizing is cilantro? One of the top 10 Google search results for the herb is IHateCilantro.com.

Site visitors are urged to share their own cilantro stories ("explain the circumstances around your first run-in ... describe in detail your worst cilantro mishap ... what have you done to spread the word about cilantro?"), and it's clear from the collected tales that many of the plant's most vocal detractors can't get past its soapy flavor.

As Julia Child famously told Larry King, "I would pick it out if I saw it (in a dish) and throw it on the floor."

Eaters who take exception to cilantro can have a tough time in Mexican, Vietnamese and Indian restaurants, where the herb is seemingly everywhere. That's because for cooks who aren't genetically predisposed to dislike cilantro, its bright, citrusy notes are indispensable. If you can stomach seven cilantro factoids, read on:

1. When the ripe fruit of a cilantro plant is dried, it's called coriander. But cilantro leaves and coriander seeds aren't interchangeable when cooking: The flavor of coriander is closer to caraway or sage. The seeds are roasted in India as a snack, and tossed into pickling liquids in Europe.

2. Cilantro is twice as effective at combating salmonella as the most commonly used antibiotic: The University of California-Berkeley chemist who studied the responsible compound has suggested eaters could forestall the effects of ingesting a salmonella-infected quarter-pound burger by topping it with a quarter-pound of the potent herb. If that's an appetizing prospect, just make sure to check the cilantro's source: Cilantro has been the subject of multiple recalls for potential salmonella contamination.

3. Although cilantro resembles flat-leaf parsley, it's easily distinguished by its rounded leaves and strong aroma.

4. Researchers are exploring whether wild cilantro could help improve water quality in nonindustrialized places. Cilantro, which is readily available in rural Mexico and India, has been shown to remove lead and copper from polluted water.

5. When shopping for cilantro, look for crisp, medium-green leaves without spots.

6. Cilantro is an ancient plant. There's evidence the Egyptians cultivated it, and early Western physicians prescribed it as an aphrodisiac and mouthwash. It even merited a mention in the Old Testament, which describes manna as "white like coriander seed."

7. In the U.S., fresh cilantro often ends up in salsa, guacamole or soup. Pho is almost always served with a bundle of it. But the herb also can be added to green salads and coleslaws; scrambled with eggs; pounded for pesto; muddled into cocktails; or mixed into compound butter for slathering on grilled corn.