Cilantro's bright, fresh flavor is very distinctive and easy to discern in a dish. It is also sometimes referred to as coriander, although coriander is actually the name of the plant, and cilantro refers to the leaves and stems. The coriander plant is a member of the carrot family. Typically, there is only one type of cilantro plant sold in markets, but rarely one can find another kind of cilantro, called Hmong cilantro.
Typical cilantro looks much like flat-leaf Italian parsley, and is often referred to as Chinese parsley or Mexican parsley. It is actually related to parsley. Hmong cilantro looks more like dill than flat-leafed parsley -- it has softer, fern-like leaves. Both types of cilantro are delicate and have a lacy look.
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Some say cilantro tastes soapy, but those who love it defend its distinct flavor. Both types of cilantro add a bright, fresh taste to food. It has a citrus-like flavor and tends to be strong. The leaves of cilantro are edible, as well as the seeds, called coriander. People do not typically eat the flowers or stems.
Cilantro is a staple in Latin American, Mexican and Caribbean cuisine. Hmong cilantro is also used in Asian cooking. In the Middle East, cilantro is used to make curries, pickles and chutneys. Medicinally, cilantro has antibiotic properties and is sometimes used as a fungicide. It is also used as an appetite stimulant.
Cilantro is not difficult to grow. The herb should be planted in partial shade in soil with good drainage. It grows quickly, and reseeds itself. Hmong cilantro is rare, but it is grown in parts of California and sold at farmer's markets there. Cilantro has been known to attract bees. If leaves are picked before the plant flowers, cilantro will continue to produce good quality herbs all summer long.