Monday, April 19, 2010

Cilantro (Coentro) - The Love-It-or-Hate-It Herb

According to a recent article in the New York Times, Julia Child was one of those many, many people who cannot abide the taste of fresh coriander (also known as cilantro). In 2002, she was a guest on Larry King's show, and during his interview he asked her if she liked cilantro, and if she would ever order it. Her typically Julia-esque reply was "Never. I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor." The NYT article, written by food scientist Harold McGee, goes on to explain exactly what it is, chemically, about this herb that causes people to be so passionate about it - either adoring or despising it. It's a fascinating read.

Certainly, most Brazilians who live along the lengthy Atlantic coast of Brazil from the state of Espírito Santo north all the way to tiny, remote Oiapoque on the border of French Guiana are passionate about cilantro (which is called coentro in Portuguese) and they're definitely in the "Yes, Please!!" camp. It is culinarily the most important green herb in all the various regional cuisines along the coast. In particular, the pairing of fish and seafood with cilantro is nearly universal in the coastal state of Northeast Brazil.

Cilantro is not native to Brazil, and was unknown to the country's inhabitants prior to the arrival of European explorers in 1500. The plant originated in the Middle East and southern/Mediterranean Europe, and became an important part of Portuguese cuisine in the early middle ages, perhaps brought there by the Moors during the period of their occupation. The Portuguese, in turn, carried it across the South Atlantic to their colonies in Brazil, where it flourished, and where it flourishes today.

Interestingly, one of the regional cuisines of Brazil that highly favors the use of cilantro is the cuisine of Bahia, which is based to a high degree on African roots and influences. Although it seems that cilantro was unknown in Africa at the time of slavery, once in the New World, Brazil's slaves made it an essential ingredient in the marvelous variety of dishes that constitute Bahian food.

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