If I had to name my top 5 holy grail cooking herbs, recao would be number 1. I always keep it stocked in my fridge and I live for the spring-summer months where I can grow it in my backyard. Recao is technically culantro but I grew up calling cilantro and culantro recao. Growing up watching my grandmother and aunts cook—there was no difference between the two herbs. It wasn’t until I began my own cooking journey that I picked up on the nuances in texture, taste, and smell.
Cilantro is main stream. It’s the herb that everyone knows and one that I’ve seen get popular over the years. It used to be exclusive to Latin and Asian restaurants but now I see it popping up in green juice recipes and “New Age American” restaurants. It’s great to see a broader audience discover the magic of this herb. Cilantro is flowery and insanely aromatic! There’s no disguising its bold flavor and when you add this bad boy to food, YOU KNOW it’s there! Browse too quickly at the grocery and you can easily mistake parsley for cilantro so beware and take a quick whiff if needed to ensure you got the right herb. Trust me, you’ll know immediately if you picked up the wrong one.
Culantro, on the other hand, is like the talented sister of a super famous star who always gets shafted for the more ostentatious sister. Sad to say, but it’s true. Culantro doesn’t get its due shine, yet culantro is bad ass! I personally prefer it over cilantro because culantro tastes a little bit more like home to me. It has a distinct flavor that when I taste it in beans, moro*, or asopao* I go, “Yep. Tastes just like mama’s!” It warms my heart and belly all at the same time. Culantro has a slightly stronger flavor with subtle sweet undertones and a stronger smell. It’s also much harder to find and has a shorter shelf life than cilantro. (Womp, womp, womp) Lastly, unlike its close sister-cousin cilantro, mistaking culantro for parsley will never happen since the leaves of culantro are flat with spinney little edges.
Though I prefer culantro over cilantro, let the record show that cilantro is also bad ass. I use them interchangeably depending on what’s wilting the fastest and what’s in stock at the grocery store. Nothing puts me in a bad mood quicker than buying subpar dull recao which is why I grow my own during the warmer months. Trust me, there’s nothing more frustrating that buying picture perfect recao and breaking off a leaf only to smell nothing! Excuse me? In what world? See.. I was already getting worked up just thinking about it. **woosah**
In the end, cilantro and culantro are super close relatives and you can think of them as first cousins or sisters. Recao is technically culantro, but I use recao to refer to both cilantro and culantro. I blame my grandmother and my aunt for this one. Whenever I’d help out making red beans they’d say “pásame el recao” and never specify which one. So I grew up thinking they were one in the same. If you haven’t already started using these herbs, take the risk and revamp your salad, marinara sauce, or beans with it. Recao unleashes a freshness that will undoubtedly make you a fan!
*moro: Hispanic rice cooked with beans
*asopao: Dominican stew made with rice that resembles gumbo