Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jun 24, 2013
12:06 PM
Small Dishes

Pungent Plant

Pungent Plant

Coriandrum sativum goes by many names, including Chinese parsley and dhania. In this country we use the Spanish word, cilantro, for the green plant, but refer to its dried seeds as coriander. As far as the Brits are concerned, both are coriander. It’s a common herb used the world over, as much hated by some as loved by others. When Larry King asked the cooking legend Julia Child what foods she couldn’t stand, her answer was: “Cilantro and arugula.”

Even its name seems to have dubious origins, “coriander” being derived from the Greek word for bedbug (the odor of cilantro is often compared to that of bedbug-infested linens). But it isn’t just the smell that some find offensive. Its taste is often described as soap-like or even repulsive. Chemically there’s some logic to that since it contains compounds—aldehydes—similar to those found in soaps, lotions and certain insects. Others find it virtually neutral in taste. How each of us reacts to it may actually be genetically disposed.

Since I do like cilantro, I would prefer to think of it in less clinical terms—as a matter of taste. Similar to why I like oysters and black olives while there are those who detest them. If you’re like me and find that cilantro can really perk up a recipe, here are some recommendations you might enjoy. For all you cilantro haters, here is another blog for you:

Pho could well be the Vietnamese national dish, though it probably evolved from the French pot-au-fou. It’s become increasingly popular in this country since the 1990s as a one-bowl meal. It’s a spiced broth with meat—most often beef—and noodles with lots of garnishes. I think it’s the topping of crunchy bean sprouts and sprigs of cilantro and that really give it vivacity. Several authentic versions of pho are on the menu at Ha Long Bay.   

Cilantro is widely used in cooking throughout Southeast Asia. Lao Laan-Xang specializes in Laotian cuisine and I endorse its khao tod nam som. A lettuce wrap filled with rice, ground pork and fresh coconut; cilantro makes the perfect condiment.

Pesto is traditionally made with basil, but cilantro makes a zesty alternative. Renaissance Farms in Spring Green is famous locally for its pesto and herb-infused oils, sold at the farmers' market and stores around the area. Among its seven varieties, it produces two cilantro pestos, one spiced up with the addition of jalapeño peppers. They also market a cilantro pesto salad dressing.

Many of us associate cilantro with Mexican food, but it’s popular throughout Latin America. At Inka Heritage one of their specialties is seco de cordero, lamb slowly braised in beer and cilantro that’s served with rice, beans and fried yucca. It’s a homey dish guaranteed to satisfy a piqued palate.

I love fish tacos, and at Eldorado Grill they’re kicked up a notch, made with your choice of either fried or blackened mahi mahi (my favorite). They arrive with the anticipated garnishes, including fresh cilantro, but it’s the cilantro lime aioli that makes them special.

El Pastor was one of the first authentic Mexican taquerias to come to town. To this day they have one of the most extensive selections of tacos with the likes of barbacoa (lamb), lengua (beef tongue) and cabeza (cow’s head). My favorite, though, is the pastor, marinated and grilled pork topped with onions and cilantro and simply perfect.

Dhania—both the seeds and the plant—are used extensively in Indian cooking. It’s thought to stimulate digestion and minimize gastric distress. A tandoor is a clay oven used to cook chicken, lamb, shrimp and bread. For its tandoori shrimp masala Swagat Indian Restaurant marinates plump shrimp in spiced yogurt, and then after grilling in the tandoor, adds a tomato curry sauce and fresh cilantro.

With vodka flavors such as bacon and bubblegum, it’s hard to imagine what will be next. Absolut recently introduced cilantro lime to its seemingly endless line. No doubt this was in response to the current infatuation for adding cilantro to mixed drinks, especially gin and tonic. I have a feeling this might work well for cilantrophiles in a bloody mary.

RECIPE: Chimichurri

This sauce that can be used on a variety of grilled meats originated in Argentina.


3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, roughly chopped
1 large handful fresh Italian parsley leaves
1 large handful fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup white or red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
Pinch of ground cumin
1-1/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil


Puree all ingredients in food processor. Transfer to a bowl. It can be made 2 hours ahead. Cover and let stand at room temperature.

Makes about 2 cups.

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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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