Something happens when you stew meat with cilantro. Its broth takes on amazing depth and tanginess that you could never imagine just from the pungent scent and taste of the fresh herb. Some people like it and others cannot stand it when the leaves are fresh, but cooked in a stew it creates a flavor unimaginable from it alone.
When you think of cilantro, you may think of the green and pungent leaves as a garnish or an accompaniment added at the last minute. Yet in Peru it is classic to cook with it as a basic ingredient, despite the existence of a green hot sauce made with fresh cilantro leaves.
The plant originates in the Mediterranean where it grows wild and is called coriander. Cilantro, or the Peruvian culantro, derive from the ancient word coriandrum and its variant coliandrum. Today, the name coriander for the seeds and cilantro for the leaves seem so different as to make it hard to imagine they come from the same plant.
The spicy, pungent flavor of the seed reminiscent of cumin but meatier and without the bite, is common used in stews in many places. One can imagine that when it is ground into a powder. But the leaves can easily seem unusable for stewing.
When finely ground or blended and added to broth, or cooked with the meat as it forms a broth, the coriander adds an amazingly rich flavor that is so much more than a combination of green herb and broth.
This little trick, stewing the herb with meat, is at the heart of several creole dishes from the Peruvian coast that have become part of the national code and, as a consequence, are out conquering the world. These include the famous Peruvian arroz con pollo, so unlike its other Latin cousins of the same name precisely because of the addition of cilantro, or a whole range of secos where only the meat changes whether chicken, beef or lamb. You also find this in norteño style tamales.
As Hispano Arab, and now Peruvian creations, these come from the Peruvian north where Spanish sits on top of the great Moche civilization and its pyramids. It not only led to amazing flavor in cooking but also to the courtship dance and song, the marinera, as the famous caballos de paso fino, the wonderfully smooth paced Peruvian horses. It has spread throughout Peru and now goes into the world.
In suburban West Valley, Utah it is common served in Peruvian restaurants and on Sunday it was the special of the day at the local El Rocoto.
Though little commented, in the art of stewing cilantro Peru shows off the depth of its roots in the ancient world of Rome, Greece, and Egypt, the cradle of Western civilization.