Of all the bright green herbs out there, cilantro -- the fresh, leafy stalks of the coriander plant -- may be the most polarizing. The millions who love cilantro pile it on soups, salsas, wraps, and roll-ups. And the people who hate it really hate it.
"I couldn't get it out of my mouth fast enough," says Rebecca Rose, a life insurance case manager in Huntington, NY. Rose's first cilantro moment came at a restaurant when she was a teenager. "I scooped up a chip full of pico de gallo, took a bite, and basically freaked out."
For years, Rose was on cilantro high alert, carefully avoiding the herb, which she called "The Great Parsley Pretender." Finally, she decided to give it another try. "I love, love, love avocados. And my favorite guacamole-making restaurant includes cilantro in the guac. I think that's what converted me."
Today Rose not only tolerates the herb, she seeks it out. "My mom always said, 'Your tastes change. You might not like something today that you'll like farther down the road.'" And cilantro-wise? "She was right!"
Cilantro adds fresh, lemony, bright, and spicy flavors as well as earthy undertones to Asian soups, spring rolls, salads, Southwestern dips, salsas, stews, and sandwiches. Pulsing cilantro into dips or pestos tames the herb's scent somewhat, making it more approachable for a wider audience.
Cilantro is a source of iron, magnesium, and manganese. The herb is super-low in calories (only 1 calorie per quarter-cup) and super-high in a long list of plant-based nutrients called phytochemicals, including limonene, camphor, and quercetin. These compounds, abundant in vegetables and fruit and in cilantro's essential oils, are powerful antioxidants, which help the body fight disease and aging.
Fresh cilantro leaves may also be a natural antibiotic: Studies show a compound called dodecenal in the leaves may be as effective as a commonly used antibiotic drug at killing salmonella. To get the most out of these benefits, eat cilantro when it's fresh and vibrantly deep green. Leaves should be crisp and spot-free.