More than just a flavor enhancer: cilantro, the unsung hero of tasty cuisine

Li Anlan
Although its smell and taste aren't for everyone, cilantro is a surprisingly versatile vegetable that's much more than just a flavor enhancer.
Li Anlan
SSI ļʱ

When it comes to cilantro, one of the most ubiquitous herbs, there's almost no middle ground. Its polarizing smell and taste is something one person finds refreshing while another thinks it's repulsive.

Many restaurants in China ask customers whether they would like cilantro, scallions or garlic since their strong flavors aren't liked by all.

Cilantro and coriander are two names for the same plant, coriander, which is used in the United Kingdom – which comes from the French word coriandre – while the fresh herb is referred to as cilantro in the United States.

More than just a flavor enhancer: cilantro, the unsung hero of tasty cuisine

Cilantro is one of the most common fragrant herbs in Chinese cuisine. It's also used as a leafy vegetable.

Cilantro is known as xiangcai in Chinese, which translates as "fragrant vegetable." All parts of the plant, from the leaves and stems to the roots and seeds, are edible, with distinct flavors and aromas.

Coriander seeds are a spice commonly used in sauces, curries and stews, but seldom used in Chinese cooking. Dried cilantro leaves are rarely used in Chinese cuisine as well, the flavor of which is milder than the fresh herb.

Cilantro has a very short shelf life. It can perish quickly even in the refrigerator, so always buy it in small quantities. To store extra cilantro and keep it fresh and green, thoroughly rinse it, cut it into smaller pieces, seal it in a container and store it in the freezer. The same process can also be used to store fresh scallions.

More than just a flavor enhancer: cilantro, the unsung hero of tasty cuisine

A bowl of stewed beef noodles topped with fresh cilantro leaves.

A touch of aroma

Cilantro and scallions are two of the most common herbs in Chinese cooking. They're sliced and sprinkled on top of dishes to bring an air of freshness to them.

Take crucian carp soup as an example. Boiling a couple sprigs of cilantro several minutes before the soup is ready brings a unique flavor and gentle sweetness to it. What's more, sprinkling chopped leaves on top of any soup adds a refreshing aroma.

Cilantro is sometimes used as a main ingredient like a leafy vegetable. It can be chopped and seasoned with soy sauce and chili oil dressing to serve as a salad that neutralizes the richness of other hearty entries, such as proteins like cooked chicken, beef shank and beancurd sheet.

More than just a flavor enhancer: cilantro, the unsung hero of tasty cuisine

Crucian carp soup with cilantro

Cilantro and egg stir-fry is a recipe similar to leek and egg stir-fry. Whisk two or three eggs, season them with a pinch of salt and make tender scrambled eggs in a wok. Take the eggs out of the wok when they're curdled so they're not overcooked. In the same wok, add some oil and cook chopped cilantro for 30 seconds, add the scrambled eggs, toss well and season to taste just before removing the wok from the stove.

A simpler way to make a cilantro and egg stir-fry is to chop fresh cilantro into smaller pieces, mix them directly into the whisked eggs and season with salt. Next, heat up some oil in a non-stick pan and pour in the mixture, stir and scramble while it cooks and the dish is ready when the eggs are cooked and the cilantro is soft and green. It can also be made into a pancake for breakfast.

Cilantro can also be used to make dumpling fillings like celery and radish. It also pairs well with shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, eggs and either pork or beef.

A vegan filling to try is cilantro and tofu, which uses finely diced, fresh, hard tofu as the protein and a large amount of finely chopped cilantro leaves to boost the flavor. The seasoning is also simple with vegan fillings. Just use salt, white pepper, sesame oil and light soy sauce to taste.

More than just a flavor enhancer: cilantro, the unsung hero of tasty cuisine

Cilantro can be mixed with proteins to make dumpling fillings.

On a grill, cilantros are wrapped in bacon, thinly sliced beef or beancurd sheet to make rolls that are then skewed, seasoned and grilled. Cilantro rolls can also be cooked hotpot style. The fresh herb can also be boiled in hotpot as a vegetable or incorporated in minced pork to make richer cilantro meatballs.

The root of fresh cilantro is usually discarded as waste, since it's very muddy and hard to thoroughly clean. The texture is also harder to consume as an herb. But there are uses for the root after overcoming the rinsing process, as they actually pack the strongest flavors of the plant.

Cilantro root salad is a classic salad and side dish in Hunan cuisine. It takes about five centimeters of the venerable from the root to stem, then scrape off the small root hairs with a knife. Simply mix the cilantro root with a little bit of salt, soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil and chili oil, and the dish is ready.

Cilantro root pickle is a stronger recipe that's great to serve with congees, noodles and buns. The recipe infuses fresh cilantro roots in an intensely flavored dressing comprised of light soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, oyster sauce, sesame oil, ginger and garlic paste. The pickle is usually served in a couple of hours, since longer steeping time makes it too salty.

The root's harder texture also makes it suitable for using in stews and braised meat dishes. Lightly stir-frying cilantro roots with crushed garlic (keep the peel) and other spices/herbs before using them in the stock to braise the meat brings out the flavors and fragrances of the ingredients. It can be used to braise beef shank, pork trotters and vegetarian options like tofu.

More than just a flavor enhancer: cilantro, the unsung hero of tasty cuisine

Cilantro roots are useful as well.

Being creative

Cilantro is used in a wide range of recipes and products in addition to its primary role of boosting the flavor of savory dishes.

Cilantro cake is one of the most eye-catching and unique creations you'll come across. This very niche dessert is available in very few restaurants – a visually stunning layered cream cake made with a generous amount of cilantro. Part of it is sponge cake – a batter mixed with cilantro juice. The cake is decorated with fresh cilantro leaves.

The idea went viral worldwide after a dessert bar in South Korea named Won Hyeong Deul created the recipe.

A restaurant called Deer Camp in Minhang District has 6-inch cilantro cake on the menu for 218 yuan, which is also sold by the slice.

Peanut ice cream with cilantro was once a trendy recipe out of Taiwan. It's a dessert of rich textures and flavors. The ice cream is topped with lots of fresh cilantro leaves and peanut brittle shavings, which is then rolled up like a burrito in a thin pancake.

Cilantro-flavored potato chips are another creative cilantro product launched by Oishi. The potato chips contain finely minced dried cilantro leaves, and the special spice coating adds a fresh, herbal sensation.

Lyfen has a cilantro-flavored lollipop that some buy out of curiosity. The flavor is sweet and sour, and the taste of cilantro is strong at the outset.

You may even find cilantro lemon tea occasionally in beverage stores that seek to invent unique flavors.

More than just a flavor enhancer: cilantro, the unsung hero of tasty cuisine

Cilantro beef rolls for hotpot

Cilantro and beef salad

A bold and rich salad that makes cilantro enthusiasts happy and fulfilled.


Fresh beef shank, about 1 kilo

Cilantro, 100 grams

Ginger, 1 clove

Scallions, 50 grams

Cinnamon stick, 1

Star anise, 2

Bay leaves, 3

Light soy sauce, 40ml

Sugar, 2 teaspoons

Vinegar, 3-4 teaspoons

Garlic, 3 cloves

Cooking wine, 130ml


1. Thoroughly rinse the garlic and separate the roots and leaves.

2. Fill a large pot that seals well with water and pour in the cooking wine. Add the ginger, cilantro roots, cinnamon stick, star anise, bay leaves and scallions. Cut the beef shank in half and put it in the pot.

3. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat. Remove all the residue floating on the surface with a ladle. Cook over medium low heat for one hour, then turn off the heat and let it sit in the pot for another hour so the beef shank soaks up more of the stock. No salt is necessary in braising the meat since it will be seasoned as a salad.

4. Remove the beef shank from the stock and let it cool down to room temperature. It can then be packaged and stored in the refrigerator or freezer for later use.

5. To make the salad, slice the beef shank as thinly as possible and put it in a big bowl.

6. Crush and chop the garlic, then lightly fry it in a little bit of oil. In a small bowl, add sugar, light soy sauce and vinegar to the garlic oil and dilute with a little bit of water to taste. Add the cooked garlic to the dressing.

7. Chop the fresh cilantro leaves, mix them into the sliced beef with the dressing and serve.

More than just a flavor enhancer: cilantro, the unsung hero of tasty cuisine

Cilantro and beef salad

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