Herbs: Vietnamese Coriander, Cilantro and Culantro; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition

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About the history of cilantro, botanical name coriandrum sativum. Also, the cilantro or coriander mimics, culantro and Vietnamese coriander. The nutrition and antioxidants in cilantro and culantro.

Coriandrum sativum is a highly aromatic, herbaceous plant, from the Umbelliferae botanical family, commonly known in Europe and Asia as fresh coriander, although it is known as cilantro or Chinese parsley in the USA and Latin America. This plant, related to caraway and anise, produces tiny brown seeds that are considered among the world’s oldest spices. Coriander is nutritious, low calorie, and historically has been used in folk medicine to treat a variety of ailments.

The history of coriander can be traced back over 5000 years since the herb was first mentioned in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India and Persia. The ancient Egyptians were know to have cultivated cilantro for medicinal purposes, as a spice, and for perfume. Coriander seeds were found in tomb of King Tutankhamen's and other tombs, where they were placed to aid the digestion of those in the afterlife. Medicinally, the ancient Egyptians used the herb to treat stomach problems, urinary tract infections, headaches, gastric complaints and digestive problems.

The ancient Greeks also valued cilantro as a remedy, from about 1400 B.C, and its believed the word coriander is derived from the Greek word koros, meaning bug; the strong smell of coriander leaves has been likened to that of bed bugs. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed coriander seeds to cure flatulence around 400 B.C and the Romans used cilantro for a wide variety of purposes, including as a marinade to preserve meat, and as a spice. It is also thought that cilantro was grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, from about 600 B.C, primarily for its fragrance.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) favorite scent was lavender, and her favorite treat was said to have been sweets made from coriander seeds covered in hard candy.

Cilantro has been widely used in traditional Chinese and Asian folk medicine. According to a Chinese custom, those who eat coriander seeds can obtain internal life. The herb is less utilized in western cuisine, mainly because some people dislike its aroma and taste. However in Latin America and Asia, cilantro is an integral, practically indispensable part of food preparation. Moreover, it is a utilitarian herb; every part of this plant, leaf, flower, seed, stem and root is used; nothing goes to waste. The big difference is that in Southeast Asia, herbs, like vegetables, are part of the meal and not just a flavoring.

Although cilantro is native to Europe, in particular the Mediterranean, there are a number of herbs, which, although they look different, are considered, to all intents and purposes, cilantro mimics. Herbs native to the tropics like Vietnamese coriander and culantro are interchangeable with cilantro.

Rau Ram or Vietnamese Coriander (Persicaria odorata): Rau ram, or phak phai as it is known in Thailand, is an evergreen perennial with tiny white flowers, that is native to South East Asia. The leaves of this plant have a similar, yet milder flavor than cilantro. The more mature plant leaves also have a hint of lemon flavor. Rau rau is used as a condiment and is a basic ingredient in the Vietnamese soup known as pho. Pho is low calorie and nutritious; a typical bowl of the soup contains about 650 calories. Vietnamese coriander is also used in stir fry’s, salads and as a garnish.

An essential oil produced from Persicaria odorata known as kesom oil is being used as a natural food flavoring in the processed foods industry, and is also used in the cosmetics industry.

Culantro/Saw-Leaf Herb/Saw Tooth Coriander/ Mexican Coriander/ False Coriander (Eryngium foetidum): This plant is a perennial herb native to Tropical Latin America and the Caribbean, where it is known as culantro. It has became naturalized in Asia where it is called saw-leaf, because it has long leaves with serrate edges. Culantro is related to cilantro and is often used as a substitute for cilantro, particularly in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

This herb is not as delicate as cilantro so it has added benefits. Unlike cilantro, culantro retains flavor better when it is dried and it can also be frozen. Culantro and or cilantro are used in the preparation of sofrito, a type of cooked seasoning used in Caribbean cuisine, in particular Puerto Rico. Culantro is known as yuen sai in Cantonese; dhania in Hindi; ngo in Vietnamese and pak chee in Thai.  

The Nutritional Value of Cilantro: Cilantro is extremely nutritious and because it contains almost no calories it is often included in diet recipes. Fresh cilantro is far more nutritious than dried and coriander seeds contain more minerals than leaf. Cilantro is an excellent source of vitamin A or beta carotene. It is also a source of vitamin’s B and C. This herb has a high mineral content which includes, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and iron. Both Culantro and cilantro contain vitamin A, although culantro is a better source of the vitamin, with 10,460 IU per 100 grams. The same amount of cilantro contains about 7,000 IU.

Cilantro and culantro are both sources of the antioxidant rich phytochemicals, also found in spinach, known as lutein and zeaxathin. Studies have demonstrated that a diet rich in the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin can help protect the skin against UVB photo-aging and also skin cancer. Both phytochemicals have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which are primarily important for eye health, and may help protect against cataracts. Both culantro and cilantro are considered medicinal for diabetics and are used for detoxification.

Culantro (Eryngium foetidum). Image by FotoosVanRobin at flickr.com. Primary image credit; fotopedia.com. 


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