Q - What in the heck is culantro? Is it a mispronunciation of cilantro or something completely different?
A - OK, you caught me! I asked that question myself. Why? Cause I ran across culantro for the first time a few weeks ago, and wanted to share my new knowledge with the world. At least with the very small world composed of people who read my blog.
My encounter with culantro happened at Pho Dang, a new Vietnamese cafe in Winooski. My bowl of beefy pho arrived accompanied by a selection of herbs meant to be torn up and stirred into the broth. Mint, cilantro and Thai basil were recognizable, but there was one herb, with long serrated leaves, that I'd never, ever seen before. I can't remember the last time that happened!
So I did a little research. Culantro (or ngo gai, in Vietnamese), as is evident by the pungent aroma, is closely related to cilantro. It is native to the Caribbean and tropical regions of the Americas, and is a popular kitchen herb in the aforementioned regions, as well as in Southeast Asia.
Despite that, I was unable to find a single recipe calling for it in any of my regional cookbooks. To make matters worse, a book on Mayan cooking and another on the cuisines of the Caribbean said that cilantro and culantro are the same thing. The only tome that differentiates is The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy. But even then, it doesn't actually call for the stuff.
Since my old-fashioned, paper books weren't helping, I turned to the web. If you're able to find culantro at an Asian or other ethnic market, here are a few uses...
1) Black beans and rice with culantro chimichurri, from the Cooking Diva Blog.
2) Pho Bo, from About.com. It's a Vietnamese recipe, even though it's on a Chinese cooking page.
3) Linguine and lobster caribe, on the Food Network's Site.
The picture, by the way, is from a very informative, yet rather dry horticulture website at Perdue.