Culinary herbalist shares cilantro solution
I know plenty of people who grow herbs on Guam. Like me, they have all had wild success with basil, parsley, mint, oregano, rosemary, and the likes. But I have yet to meet anyone who’s had any luck getting cilantro to flourish… or even keep it alive. And it’s such a shame since cilantro pairs so perfectly with mangoes and avocados and Guam’s other island flavors. It would be so nice to have it available fresh.
I happened to mention this cilantro struggle in the Ginger Mango Salsa recipe I shared a few weeks ago. A Guam Guide reader (thanks bumbie2!) followed up with a tip I absolutely had to look into. “You’re right that cilantro doesn’t grow very well here. Instead, most people grow culantro, which smells and tastes exactly like cilantro (I think it might be a relative of some kind). Check out Marianne’s Nursery in Guam. Marianne grows a lot of culantro and has some great recipes as well.”
Could this be true? A cilantro substitute that grows well here? I had to find out.
I contacted Marianne’s Nursery. She and her husband Tomas invited me to visit their beautiful farm in Yigo. Turning down each narrow windy road on our way there, I felt like I was on a cilantro treasure hunt. When I arrived at their peaceful oasis of lush green plant life, I knew I had landed somewhere special.
As our discussion began, Marianne confirmed what I had learned for myself about cilantro. “It’s very sensitive and high maintenance here on Guam,” she said. “When you cut it, it is flimsy already.”
Marianne and Tomas Blas, who have operated a commercial plant rental company for the past 16 years, heard that a good substitute might be culantro (pronounced “coolantro”). They learned that it grows well in Latin American and some Southeast Asian countries, and it supposedly tastes just like cilantro. They ordered some seeds online and according to Tomas, “They flourished right away.”
I got to tour the tents where these green thumb islanders grow culantro. Like the lettuce farm, these plants are grown on tables waist high to make harvesting easier. These innovative growers have repurposed Styrofoam grape crates from Payless to make planter boxes. Culantro is grown in the shade of the tent so it doesn’t get direct sunlight or too much rain. I got to sample one of the grass-like blades of culantro. I am so impressed at how much it tastes just like cilantro… except so much fresher, of course!
This is the part of the interview in which I hoped Marianne and Tomas would disclose which grocery stores or farmer’s markets I could direct you all to to buy their delicious and fresh culantro. This is the part where I learned that we have some work to do. Marianne’s Nursery supplies several restaurants with their delicious culantro (check out Margarita’s in Tumon if you want to try it!), but they don’t currently produce enough to sell directly to the public.
Marianne and Tomas encouraged home farmers here on island to simply grow their own. “Plant what you can,” Marianne said. “Fresh is always best.”
No question we are speaking the same language around here. In lieu of a recipe this week, here are some planting tips from the island culantro experts themselves!
Order seeds online. (This sounds like a no-brainer, but I was under the impression that bringing seeds across international borders is a no-no. Sounds like it’s actually live plants that are a problem because there may be other microorganisms or bugs on the plant or in the soil that could wreak havoc on indigenous species.)
To get growing, sprinkle the seeds on top of a base of good potting soil in a planter and lightly cover the seeds. Grow culantro in the shade and avoid direct sunlight or the leaves may become leathery. Culantro likes to be moist but not wet, so find a way to regulate watering as well. If you run into a slug problem, yeast acts as a natural pesticide.
Many thanks to Marianne and Tomas Blas for helping me discover the culantro secret!