Recao – Understanding this Unique Herb

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Last updated on March 12, 2023

recao-plant

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Just when I think I’m well-versed in the food world, something new comes along and brings it all crashing down.

Today’s culprit? Recao: one of the most powerful herbs I’ve ever heard of. Now, if that doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know what will! 

Read on to find out more about this beloved herb, its traditional culinary uses, and how you can buy (or grow!) some of your own. 

What is Recao?

recao-bush

Recao (Eryngium foetidum)  is a leafy herb in the family Apiaceae.

If you’ve never heard of recao, you may know it by one of its other names: culantro, chadon beni, shadow benny, sawtooth coriander, bhandhania, and more.

This herb is incredibly popular in South American and Caribbean cuisine, and has spread to Southeast Asia too. But it is only native to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central & South America. 

Culantro has long green leaves with serrated borders, like a sawtooth blade.

Sharp spines can grow out of the teeth (the border), but they’re still safe to touch so long as they’re young leaves. Some mature plants will have spines sharp enough to irritate the skin. 

Recao is aromatic and very strong. It’s possible the phrase “less is more” was created with recao in mind! 

This tropical herb is hard to find here in the States, but plentiful in other countries.

Since recao dries well, you’re more likely to find it dried and ground in the spice aisle than as produce. 


Is Recao the Same as Cilantro?

pot-of-cilantro-in-kitchen

Nope! They’re in the same family (Apiaceae), but of a different genus. 

To further clarify, cilantro’s scientific name is Coriandrum sativum, whereas recao’s is Eryngium foetidum.

So, while they may share some similarities, they certainly aren’t the same thing! 


What is the Difference Between Cilantro and Culantro?

As mentioned above, cilantro and culantro are in the same family, but in different genera.

Now, the real question is, in what ways are they different, and in what ways are they similar?

Let’s start with looks.

While cilantro leaves almost resemble flowers, recao’s are long and serrated, resembling lettuce or a saw-toothed plant. Or even seaweed! 

Recao leaves are also much bigger than cilantro, and their thickness makes them easier to chiffonade. 

Onto flavor!

Recao is often said to be ten times stronger than cilantro.

Cilantro is mild, earthy, and potentially soapy, while recao is pungent and citrusy.

Recao is most often compared to anise, mint, and ginger, three flavors I would never apply to cilantro. 

Plus, cilantro is used primarily as a garnish (tostadas, soups, noodles, tacos, carnitas).

Recao, on the other hand, is a major player in the cooking process since it’s heat-tolerant.

In fact, many claim it’s better after cooking, as its flavor becomes more palatable. Not the case with cilantro, which loses its flavor and aroma after exposure to heat. 

Lastly, cilantro is an annual herb, whereas culantro is a perennial. The more you know! 

If you’re worried about accidentally buying culantro when shopping for cilantro, you can rest easy now. 

Recao isn’t grown commercially in the U.S., and they look so different that it’d be pretty difficult to confuse the two!  


What Can I Expect When Trying Recao?

green-herbs

Cooked or raw, recao is a flavor powerhouse! This pungent herb’s aroma has even been compared to crushed stinkbags–musty. 

Recao is very strong, so use it sparingly, no matter the recipe.

Cooking does reduce its intensity, but the key word here is reduce. It will still add a citrusy and earthy bite to your dish.

If you take cilantro and turn it up ten notches, boom! You’ve got culantro. 

Raw recao is sharp and biting–enough to make you screw up your nose! So, again, especially when using raw recao, less is more. 

There are also some health benefits to eating recao too! It’s said to aid in digestion and can also be used to treat fevers and the flu.

How Do You Pronounce “Recao?”

Recao’s pronunciation honors its phonetics, thank goodness. 

So, recao is pronounced “reh-cow,” just as it’s spelled!  


Are All Parts of the Racao Plant Edible?

recao-plant

From what I can tell, only the leaves of the recao plant are eaten.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the stalk or flowers are toxic, but it does mean to stick to the younger leaves when in doubt. 

Once the plant has succeeded in flowering, it’s well on the way to going to seed, AKA bolting.

At this point, the leaves are way less tender and palatable. So, pick ‘em young!


How Do I Grow Recao in the US?

Recao grows naturally in the South (looking at you, Florida!), but not so much elsewhere. It’s too chilly!

Since recao grows in the tropics, you will have to try and recreate those conditions at home.

You’ll need a moist or wet area to plant in and protection from frost and direct sunlight.

All in all, recao should be ready to harvest a mere 10 weeks after sowing the seeds. While they thrive best in the spring, they can still be grown in the summer, should you heed my warning. 

Here’s the deal with recao:

Once it flowers (and eventually goes to seed), the leaves are no longer safe to eat. Since heat and direct sunlight can trigger flowering, summer is inherently tricky. Not impossible, but tricky.  

Remember, recao is a perennial, so be careful of how many young leaves you harvest at once.

You want to leave enough so it can continue to grow–without flowering—for a while. 

With a bit of shade and a watchful eye, all should be well. Recao makes for a great container plant, by the way! 

Grow Recao from Seeds at Home

In case all that sounds like too much work, you could also try to find some!

There’s a good chance you can pick up some recao at your local Latin grocery store or Asian market.

If not, a farmer’s market or co-op is your next best bet. 


What Recipes are Recao Commonly Used In?

bowl-of-sancocho-soup

Interested in tasting something new? You’ve come to the right place! If you’re hoping to try recao, consider one of the following recipes: 


Depending on the country, the sofrito recipe will vary greatly.

Recao is also a traditional garnish for pho, though it’s not often served in the States due to lack of availability.

Although there isn’t a recipe here, culantro is also a common ingredient in Northern Thai curries

There are also several recipes online for pickled veggies, such as yamagobo, that add recao for a pungent, earthy twist.

For another fresh option, try to make your own mango chow with a few culantro leaves.

As for the many pork recipes here, make sure that your cut is still safe to eat first! 

While these are the recipes that made recao world-renowned, there are many others out there. All the more reason to grab a handful and get experimenting! 


What is the Best Way to Store Recao?

If you’ve got fresh leaves, it’s best to store them in the fridge. 

After dampening a paper towel, wrap it around your fresh leaves. Then, place it all in an unsealed plastic baggie before tossing it in the fridge. Preserved this way, it should last up to one week in the fridge.

If recao is your new obsession, try washing, drying, and cutting them up into tiny pieces.

Afterward, place a few of the leaves into an ice cube tray and then fill them up with your preferred cooking oil.

Once the tray is frozen, you can pop out a cube every time you want a hint of culantro to spice up a dish! 

No matter what, though, make sure to wash and dry them before using! 


Does Recao Need to Be Cooked or Prepared Before I Eat It?


Like all other herbs, it’s best to wash and dry recao before using it. However, that’s really the only prep you need to do!

Recao can be eaten raw, but remember that less is truly more in this case.

Since it’s so pungent, it’s usually cooked before consumption, as heat will lessen its intensity.

Unlike cilantro, recao can withstand–and actually loves–heat!

Once cooked, you’ll still get a strong kick, but it will no longer overpower your recipe.

Let’s say you’re making pho and want to use raw recao as a garnish. Try only cutting off a tiny piece at a time and putting it in your spoon or on the surface of the broth. 

You can’t take away recao, but you can always add more. So, start small! 


Conclusion

If you’re in search of new culinary flavors to spice up your life, recao might be the one for you!

As cilantro’s superhero cousin, recao offers a peppery, citrusy, and earthy bite to much of Caribbean, South American, and Thai cuisine. 

So, next time you’re experimenting in the kitchen, consider adding in some culantro to spice it up. Remember, less is more!

Happy cooking! 

Dolly

About the author, Dolly

Dolly is a student at Goldsmiths, University of London and an avid cook. After managing a miniature organic farm for a year, she fell in love with the art of cooking and the taste of homegrown greens. Dolly first became plant-based eight years ago, and she is now a full-blown vegan; her plant-based journey has made her creative and experimental in the kitchen. If she’s not writing or cooking, Dolly can be found on her front porch, strumming her guitar and singing for anyone who will listen.