Wanted: The Perfect Cilantro Substitute
Sometimes you just can’t find any cilantro. Substitute the wrong ingredient, and your favorite salsa recipe could really go south. Cilantro has a unique taste that can really make the difference between a great recipe and one that is just mediocre. For many palates, cilantro is just the right mix of minty bitterness, so finding a perfect cilantro substitute can be more difficult than it sounds.
However, if you really need to find a substitute here are some that you might try:
As you probably know, cilantro is also known as coriander. It comes from a family of similar plants and its kissing cousin, culantro or eryngium foetidum, is one of the South American versions of the same plant. If the reason you are substituting cilantro is because you find the taste too strong, you definitely do not want to go with culantro because, as those who have ever dabbled in the food of our spicier neighbors to the south will tell you, culantro is like cilantro on steroids—meaning that all the smells and tastes that you come across in cilantro get amplified in culantro.
If, however, you are just bored with how bland cilantro is, then you might just have found your ideal cilantro substitute.
If you love cilantro but just can’t find any for whatever reason, you might try going to the Far East—or, at least as far as your local Chinatown. Once you get there, you should ask for ram rau, or if you would prefer to call it by our western name, Vietnamese coriander. (Often, these days, you can find it in a regular grocery store right by where you would normally find cilantro.) Vietnamese coriander is, as the name indicates, the eastern cousin of the cilantro, although outside of the leaf’s slightly larger green appearance, you will be hard-pressed to detect much of a difference. In fact, once diced up, you will find that Vietnamese coriander is like cilantro’s doppelganger or twin. You can interchange the two on most occasions without anyone noticing the difference.
If culantro was a bit much, but you are still willing to give South America a shot, you might try Bolivian coriander. The locals call it by the wonderfully sonorous name of quillquina and people will definitely notice that you did something different with your recipe. It is almost like a mix between arugula and cilantro, which makes it a great cilantro substitute if the reason why you are trying to substitute has to do with the soapy taste that certain palates detect with cilantro. If that is your reason for substituting, Bolivian cilantro will definitely get rid of that while also adding depth and layered complexity to any salsa.
Once you start getting creative, however, you will find that there is a whole host of other possibilities when it comes to experimenting with cilantro substitutes. For example, if you are looking for another interesting ingredient to include in salsas, then perhaps you might try Italian parsley or fresh basil. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe you should consider parsley and mint—this pair will often reproduce the taste of cilantro in combination, often without the “soapy” aftertaste mentioned above.
Of course, if salsa is your thing, you might consider just leaving the cilantro out. Purists will remind you that cilantro is a relatively recent addition to this Mexican classic dish and that fresh tomatoes and onions are far more important than cilantro will ever be.
If you are still looking, however, you might try posting a question on a local discussion board. You will find that there are as many choices as there are chefs—everyone has their favorite cilantro substitute.