Following up on my “Cilantro, same-sex marriage, and Yoda” posting, Sim Aberson wrote to ask about culantro (with a U, not an I), another scented herb, one that grows in the part of the world where Sim lives. Two things I don’t know about culantro: what the etymology of the name is, and whether people who are sensitive to cilantro have a similar reaction to culantro.

Some background, from Wikipedia:

Eryngium foetidum is a tropical perennial and annual herb in the family Apiaceae. Its scientific Latin name literally translates as “foul-smelling thistle”. Common names include culantro …, Mexican coriander and long coriander [and sawtooth herb]. It is native to Mexico and South America, but is cultivated worldwide. In the United States, where it is not well known outside Latino and Caribbean communities, the name culantro sometimes causes confusion with Coriandrum sativum (also in Apiaceae), the leaves of which are known as cilantro, and of which culantro is said to taste like a stronger version.

E. foetidum is widely used in seasoning and marinating in the Caribbean, particularly in Panama, Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago, and in Peru’s Amazon regions. It is also used extensively in Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and other parts of Asia as a culinary herb. It dries well, retaining good color and flavor, making it valuable in the dried herb industry. It is sometimes used as a substitute for cilantro (coriander in British English), but it has a much stronger taste.

In the United States, E. foetidum grows naturally in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. It is sold in grocery stores as a culinary herb under the common names; “culantro” … or “recao”

(On uses of the plant in Vietnamese cuisine, see my 8/21/12 posting on this blog.)

Etymology.  I’ve found no etymologies for the noun culantro — though one can always hope (probably vainly) that it has something to do with Spanish culo ‘buttocks, anus’.

Sensitivity. I’d guess that the similarity in taste between cilantro and culantro arises from a chemical similarity, in which case there would probably be a cross-sensitivity between the two leaves. But that’s not guaranteed, since in other cases very similar tastes and smells can result from chemically different substances — for example, in the bergamot orange (which flavors Earl Grey tea) and the monarda plant (also known as bergamot and bee-balm).

One small hint that there might be something going on here comes on the Only Foods site, where the culantro page says

it may cause allergic reactions in some people. Over consumption may also cause some adverse health effects.

3 Responses to “culantro”

  1. Andy Sleeper Says:

    Culantro is delicious in phở, the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup, but most restaurants don’t serve it. If you ask for it (ngò gai in Southern dialect or mùi tàu in Northern), they might have it in the back.

  2. Karen Schaffer Says:

    The monarda I’ve encountered hasn’t had even a hint of bergamot scent to it, so I always wondered why it had that name.

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