The most common green plant used in Mexican cuisine is cilantro. Cilantro, also known as coriander, is an herb that is heavily featured in a variety of authentic Mexican dishes. With its bright green leaves and unique flavor, cilantro is a staple ingredient that adds freshness and flavor to salsas, tacos, guacamole, and more.
What does cilantro taste like?
Cilantro has a very distinct taste that some people love and others dislike. It has been described as fresh, citrusy, bright, and even soapy. The flavors come from the oils in cilantro leaves, which contain aldehydes that give cilantro its divisive flavor profile. Those who enjoy it find that it brings a pleasant hit of herbs, citrus, and spice that livens up food. Those who dislike cilantro often say it tastes like soap or has a metallic aftertaste.
Why do some people hate cilantro?
It turns out there is some science behind why people love or hate cilantro. Researchers have found that genetics play a role. A group of aldehyde chemicals give cilantro its unique flavor, but these are perceived differently by different people based on their genetics. For those whose receptors perceive these aldehydes as soapy or repulsive, cilantro tastes quite unpleasant. However, others have receptor genes that allow them to detect the more pleasant herbal and citrusy notes. So while cilantro has a polarizing taste, it’s not your fault if you fall on the ‘hate it’ side – your genetics determine how you perceive its flavor!
What are the origins of using cilantro in Mexican cuisine?
Cilantro has a long history of use in Mexico. The herb is native to the Middle East and Southern Europe, but it arrived in Mexico thousands of years ago via Spanish colonization. However, the practice of using cilantro in Mexican cooking pre-dates Spanish colonization. Indigenous peoples in Mexico were already utilizing the herb, which grew wild, in their dishes.
Once cilantro arrived along with the colonizers, it gained even more prominence in Mexican cuisine. Its bright flavor added new dimensions to traditional dishes. Mexican cooks realized that cilantro could bring a fresh twist to staples like corn, beans, and chiles. Its authentic flavor paired perfectly with the ingredients that make up the foundations of Mexican food. Using cilantro quickly became an integral part of creating the complex layers of flavors in Mexican cooking.
What types of Mexican dishes use cilantro?
Cilantro is used in all types of Mexican food today. Some dishes that are characterized by the use of cilantro include:
- Pico de gallo
Cilantro adds its bright, citrusy punch of flavor to cooler dished like guacamole and ceviche as well as heartier dishes like enchiladas and tamales. Its versatility as an herb makes it a flavor powerhouse in so many beloved Mexican recipes.
Cilantro is one of the main ingredients in many Mexican salsas. It provides freshness and herbaceous notes to balance out spiciness from chiles. Some popular salsas that contain cilantro include pico de gallo, salsa verde, and chimichurri.
Chopped cilantro or cilantro sprigs are a standard garnish for tacos of all types. They provide flavor and aroma to fillings like carnitas, barbacoa, or carne asada. Cilantro also often appears in salsa toppings for tacos.
Cilantro leaves mix into traditional guacamole recipes to provide balance to the creamy avocado base. The cilantro adds lightness and some subtle spice to the rich, cooling guacamole.
What does cilantro look like?
Cilantro is a leafy green herb. The leaves of the cilantro plant are light green and feathery, similar to parsley leaves but smaller. Cilantro has long, slender stems that reach about 12-24 inches in height when fully grown. The entire cilantro plant is edible – stems, leaves, seeds, and roots – but the leaves are most commonly used for cooking.
The cilantro leaves that are used in cooking have jagged edges and fan out into fern-like patterns along the stems. The leaves grow all along the length of the stem, concentrated near the top. The leaves provide the most cilantro flavor, especially when freshly chopped.
The bright green stems of the cilantro plant have a tougher texture than the leaves. They tend to be thicker toward the base. The stems also contain some of the distinctive cilantro flavor, although it is more concentrated in the leaves. Cilantro stems are sometimes chopped up along with the leaves for use in recipes.
Cilantro can form deep taproots below the surface of the soil. These off-white, bulbous roots have an intense cilantro taste. The roots are edible and can be cleaned and chopped up to add cilantro flavor to dishes, though they are not as widely used as the leaves.
When cilantro goes to seed and flowers, it produces small brown seed pods that contain tiny cilantro seeds. The seeds have a more concentrated, spice-like cilantro taste compared to the fresh leaves. Cilantro seeds are harvested and dried to produce the spice coriander, which is popular in its own right.
How is cilantro used in Mexican cuisine?
There are several ways cilantro is incorporated into Mexican dishes:
- Chopped – Cilantro leaves and tender stems are chopped into small pieces to release flavor and mix into salsas, guacamole, salads, etc.
- Whole sprigs – Cilantro sprigs are sometimes used as a garnish or add-on for tacos, soups, stews, and other dishes.
- Sauces and dressings – Cilantro is blended into green or red enchilada sauce, vinaigrettes, chimichurri, and other sauces and poured over meats and vegetables.
- Cooking – Cilantro is sautéed with aromatics like onion and garlic at the start of cooking some dishes.
- Garnish – Chopped and whole cilantro leaves are used as a fresh, colorful garnish atop finished dishes.
The raw leaves and tender stems of cilantro provide the most flavor, so they are usually added near the end of cooking. This preserves their fresh herb taste. However, cooked cilantro can also be delicious, taking on a deeper, more mellow flavor.
What types of cilantro are used in Mexican cooking?
There are a few varieties of cilantro used in Mexican cuisine:
- Standard cilantro – The regular green cilantro found everywhere is the most common type used.
- Long-standing cilantro – This slow-bolting variety withstands heat better and lasts longer before flowering.
- Vietnamese cilantro – This variety has slightly different flavor with more spice and citrus notes.
- Oaxacan cilantro – A regional variety with purple tinges on the stems and unique aroma.
Standard green cilantro is the easiest to find. Long-standing cilantro may be preferred in hot regions where cilantro bolts more quickly. The others can provide some different flavor notes but are harder to source than regular cilantro.
What parts of Mexico use cilantro most in their cuisine?
Cilantro is used widely across all regions of Mexico, but some parts of the country feature it especially prominently:
- Central Mexico – Signature central dishes like tacos al pastor, tortas, and guacamole rely on cilantro.
- Northern Mexico – The herb flavors Northern Mexican staples like burritos, carnitas, and ceviche.
- Southern Mexico – Cilantro accents complex moles, tlayudas, and fresh salsas in Oaxaca.
- Yucatan Peninsula – Habanero salsas get a cilantro kick along with dishes like cochinita pibil.
- Baja California – Seafood dishes and tacos spotlight cilantro here.
No matter what region of Mexico, cilantro finds its way into many local specialties. Certain areas like Oaxaca and the Yucatan Peninsula are known for taking advantage of cilantro’s signature flavors.
Why is cilantro so important in Mexican cuisine?
Cilantro forms an integral part of Mexican cuisine for several reasons:
- Flavor – Cilantro has a unique taste that brings a fresh, herbal component when combined with chiles, tomatoes, and other Mexican ingredients.
- History – Cilantro has long been used in Mexican cooking, even before colonization. It has become an entrenched part of food culture.
- Versatility – Cilantro complements the complex layers of flavors in Mexican dishes. It also works with sweet and savory ingredients.
- Nutrition – Cilantro offers nutrients like vitamins A, K, and C, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.
- Balance – The herb balances out richer, heavier, or spicy flavors in Mexican cuisine.
With its distinct aroma, taste, and versatility, cilantro holds an esteemed spot in Mexican culinary tradition. It brings its own personality to both simple and complex Mexican dishes.
What are good cilantro substitutes for Mexican recipes?
For those who dislike cilantro or don’t have access to it, these herbs make good substitutes in Mexican dishes:
- Parsley – Italian parsley has a milder, grassier flavor, but can replicate the fresh, herbal notes.
- Culantro – This herb tastes very similar to cilantro but is more rare outside Latin American cuisine.
- Papalo – Known as summer cilantro, papalo has stronger peppery, citrus flavors.
- Cucumber – Adds freshness and crunch as garnish or in salsa recipes.
- Mint – Brings different but still bright flavors to dishes, especially fruit-based ones.
- Basil – The anise notes pair well with tomatoes and chiles.
- Lime juice – Adds tanginess and freshness when cilantro is missing.
While nothing can fully replicate cilantro’s unique flavors, these herbs and ingredients can fill in adequately. Combining a few can help cover multiple flavor dimensions. But for lovers of cilantro’s distinctive taste, there’s no true substitute.
With its unique and polarizing flavor, cilantro is the iconic green herb that brings life to Mexican cuisine. Though not universally loved, it provides an irreplaceable brightness and herbal quality. Cilantro is woven into food traditions across Mexico, cemented through its use over thousands of years. It flavors countless salsas, stews, tacos, and other dishes with its fresh, citrusy punch. Whether chopped fine or sprinkled as a garnish, cilantro’s presence helps make Mexican food Mexican.