There are some arguments that will consume you. They will take over your entire mind and body, so that you find yourself shaking with rage, unable to think of anything else. Your hands clench into fists, your teeth gnash together, and you are filled with anger and the conviction that DEAR GOD YOU ARE RIGHT AND THEY ARE SO, SO WRONG.

This is a story about one such argument.

I don’t remember how it began. Few great battles in history have marked beginnings. We say it was the assassination of Ferdinand, we suggest that it may have been the killing of Crispus Attucks and four others on a chilly night in Boston, but we are only guessing – trying to add sense and order to a situation where there likely isn’t one. Where there is only chaos and conflict.

I can tell you this: we were in London, and the turbulence at our table was in stark contrast to the unseasonably warm and sunny weather outside. I stated my piece, firm and reasonable, and was refuted by sheer madness. I shook my head. He shook his. Our voices grew louder. Our (okay, fine – my) attacks grew personal. I said some things about his mother, and her lack of a gag reflex, that I now regret. But still, I maintained my position. And that position is this: IT IS CALLED CILANTRO.

He disagreed, of course. “It’s called coriander,” he said, a claim which sounded all the more legitimate thanks to his English accent. If Patrick Stewart claimed that the sky was pink, we’d all believe it, on account of that damn accent. But I wouldn’t be so easily swayed.

“No one has ever been more wrong that you are now,” I said. Not even the guy who occasionally comments on my blog about how the holocaust never happened.

“I don’t see how I can be wrong if I’m telling you, factually, that’s what we call it,” he replied.

“And I’m telling you factually that YOUR FACE IS WRONG AND YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON,” I screamed, and told him that I recently saw his mother servicing a fleet of young sailors. That was cruel and wrong. I really shouldn’t have said that, and most definitely should not have recreated the scene using Photoshop and some old beloved family photos.

He was undeterred, and kept pressing his point. I kept shaking my head. No, no, no. It made no sense. Perhaps we had misunderstood each other. Before it turned into an unfounded bloodbath, I needed to clarify that we were talking about the same thing.

“It has green leaves,” I said, my voice strained by vitriol, but still clear. “… it  resembles parsley, and can be found in many Mexican dishes. Do you know what I’m referring to?”

“Yes. It’s a herb,” he said, making a point of pronouncing the “h” in front  of the word “herb.”

I let out a half sigh, half growl. I could only handle one epic disagreement at a time. We’d address the proper pronunciation of “herb” later.

Yes,” I said, teeth gritted. “The HHHHHHHERB.”

“Yes. The herb. Coriander.”

“CILANTRO.”

“It’s called CORIANDER.”

“AND YOUR MOTHER IS CALLED FOR A GOOD TIME.”

I don’t know how long we went on like that. It may have been minutes, or days, or weeks. Time has no meaning when you are yelling at an Englishman. My aunt has been married to a Brit for 50 years, and I am certain she would agree with this sentiment.

Looking back, I realize it was an entirely absurd argument. Here in the states, the entire plant is called coriander, as are the seeds. But the leaves are called cilantro (the Spanish word for the plant) and for clarity’s sake, it makes things much easier. Go to a store looking for coriander, and you’ll find a dried spice. Search for cilantro, and you’ll end up with a fresh, leafy herb. In the U.K., so I am told, the whole dang thing is called coriander, and the leaves are called, intuitively enough, coriander leaves (or, on occasion, Chinese Parsley). Ask for “cilantro” and you’ll get wrinkled brows and confused looks. It’s just not as common a word over there.

We might as well have been quarreling over eggplant versus aubergine. Like the superfluous “u” in “humour” and “colour”, the transposing of the letters “e” and “r” in words like “centre”, it was just one of many inconsequential things that separates the English and the Americans. There would be no resolution to this.

In the end, we agreed to disagree and I promised to stop pledging money to neo-Nazi organizations in his name.  I suppose it was all for the best. After all, is it not our differences that make life interesting? If everything were the same everywhere, wouldn’t travel be pointless? Yes. OF COURSE. Of course. Our idiosyncrasies and foibles make the world grand, I reminded myself.  And I believed all that nonsense of tolerance and goodwill until our last day in London. Right up until we were in a cab on our way out of town. That was when we saw this restaurant’s sign:

Forgive the terrible photo. I had rage fingers.

-

If you supposedly call the whole thing coriander, WHY THE HELL IS THERE A WHOLE CHAIN OF CAFES (with reportedly terribly food) CALLED CILANTRO? HUH? EXPLAIN THAT.

Your move, buddy.

Full list of categories:  Lost in Translation » Rants and Raves
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Comments (44)

  1. 12. Dec, 2011 / Janet T:

    I found this out a while ago, when I ordered in trays of each for our commercial greenhouse operation. Duh!

    Read the reviews of “Cilantro” café. So they serve pasta and also Cheese & pickle sandwiches? No Mexican food? Must have just liked the way the word sounded. Maybe if they added cilantro/coriander to their food it might improve the taste?

    Patrick Stewart is a god.

    You do pick interesting “hills to die on”. Always enjoyable to see your passion in full throttle mode.

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  2. 12. Dec, 2011 / Kyle Alm:

    Why is it that herbs is the only time that Brits actually pronounce ‘h’?

    ‘ello mate, ‘ow’s yer father?

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  3. 12. Dec, 2011 / Courtney:

    I’m on Team Cilantro. I love cilantro, even though it, uh, does, uh, unfortunate things to my digestive system. Coriander, as a seed/ spice is very good too. It’s a funny little life cycle: plant cilantro seeds, grow cilantro, eat the leaves, let plant go to seed and dry out. Harvest coriander for spices, or replant for… more cilantro! Ta-da!

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  4. 12. Dec, 2011 / Rose:

    Maybe the (allegedly) terrible cafe takes its name from the herb because of the phenomenon that many people experience, wherein cilantro tastes like soap?

    Also, I’m so glad you’re out in the world, viciously defending our minor semantic differences! Go team!

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    Everywhereist Reply:

    A friend of mine suffers from this. Cilantro, in her esteem, tastes like soap.

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    Jeanette Jayne Reply:

    it is a recessive gene that makes the horrible soapy taste, we are the lucky few.

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  5. 12. Dec, 2011 / CheezyK:

    I find it humourous that a herb like coriander could be the centre of such a colourful argument …

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    Everywhereist Reply:

    Oh … You. Did. NOT.

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    CheezyK Reply:

    :)

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    Cleo2670 Reply:

    I was taking Asian cooking classes while living in SF because, well because I suck at cooking. Anywho, we made this great recipe in my Thai class with stuffed calamari in a green curry sauce. Absolutely delicious. I of course set off to make this for my hubby and headed off to Clement Street (THE place for Asian groceries … my favorite was always Happy Grocery … gotta love that name). One of the main ingredients is ‘fresh coriander.’ Seemed simple enough right? WRONG! After attempting to speak half broken English with the guy in the vegetable section of Happy Grocery I was completely confused. He just stared blankly at me then turned grabbed the cilantro and handed it to me. I politely handed it back and repeated FRESH coriander. He picked it up again and handed me the Cilantro. WTF! I finally gave up after several rounds of this and bought the Cilantro and headed home. Once home I looked up coriander in my spice book The Complete Book of Spices (yes it is sad that I have a book on spices, but maybe next time I’ll read it first before yelling at the poor grocery guy). The book showed coriander as the dried seed and cilantro as the fresh leaf … and thus FRESH coriander was the stem of the plant. WTF and BTW while my husband loved this dish has begged me to never make it again in the house. The stuff calamari is steamed first before adding to the curry and makes the entire house smell like toe cheese even after all windows have been opened for more than an hour with 40 mile an hour winds.

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  6. 12. Dec, 2011 / GreenWyvern:

    It’s just as well you didn’t start referring to courgettes as zucchinis. Then would really have been a battle.

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    Dena Reply:

    I was recently in Scotland and was scared to try the “courgettes” I saw on several menus, fearing they were using a French word to hide something nasty… escargot = snails… courgettes = chicken butts. Finally it was revealed by a very nice and cultured young Scots woman that they were in fact, zucchinis. To which I asked, “why don’t you call them zucchinis?” and she replied, “because no one wants to order a vegetable”.

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    darran311 Reply:

    They are called courgettes. As a chef ive heard zucchini used but never knew what one was ive just learned another example of american awkwardness but at least itll help with understandings etc.
    20 years in kitchens and I never knew zucchini was just another way to describe courgette. Then it took long enough to realise americans call sweet potatoes yams when they are from a completely different family of plants known as morning glory

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  7. 12. Dec, 2011 / Mike:

    That might explain why when I tried shopping for cilantro in Ireland, it turned into a carnival sideshow of perplexed faces. That aside, I still cooked my Irish cousins quesadillas, which they had never had before. Despite the lack of cilantro zing, there are at least 5 people in the world who think I’m a gourmet.

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  8. 12. Dec, 2011 / Erica:

    I have been wondering what the difference was for YEARS! In retrospect, I could have looked it up, but it wouldn’t have been as good as learning the difference via funny story.
    A lot of Japanese people can’t eat “coriander” so I’d assume that “cilantro” was totally fine and serve it to them. No one’s complained yet, but I don’t know if that’s out of politeness or the placebo effect.

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  9. 12. Dec, 2011 / laura:

    This explains so much! In French they called it coriandre (which is just like coriander), and I was convinced that it wasn’t cilantro as we have something called coriander in America too! But I cooked with it anyway. Basically the British are just way more French than we are (as aubergine is also French for eggplant).

    Great story by the way, it made me laugh.

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    James Reply:

    errr. eggplant is a colo(u)r (dark purple) :p

    Perhaps it might be better to say eggplant is an american translation of aubergine…or melongene, garden egg or guinea squash or brinjal.

    Sillyness asside. Eggplant came from a european effort to grow em that didn’t result in the eggplant you know and love. It resulted in a fruit that looked like eggs….because they were white. Hence the name. How this got translated to a purple colo(u)r (since it described “a plant that bore white fruit”) is anyone’s guess.

    …and aubergine isn’t a french word it has western Mediterranean origins
    melongene….eastern Mediterranean origins

    jus’ sayin, in a british accent that you will struggle to argue with

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    darran311 Reply:

    Eggplant is just american for aubergine then ? This is all just to confuse matters and cause arguments I think because there was nothing wrong with the way things were originally named and then people run round using all these inaccurate terms instead

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  10. 13. Dec, 2011 / Meghan:

    Hilarious!!! I just had a subdued argument (because we were at HER bridal shower) with a friend about this! When she said coriander and cilantro were the same thing, I just looked at her with one eyebrow cocked and said, Okay….

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  11. 13. Dec, 2011 / Andi:

    Is that the Cilantro on Tottenham Court Rd? I went by that restaurant almost everyday and never tried it, glad I didn’t now. I’ll have to bring this argument up to my British friends, never really thought about it before, I always assumed they were 2 completely different things..cilantro and coriander, who knew?

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  12. 14. Dec, 2011 / Betty:

    Rage fingers! Snort! Churgle! I love you so much Everywherist. I had to forward this to my Brit friend and now we’re arguing about taxicabs and hire cars which is great fun. He is SO wrong!

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    James Reply:

    where do you stand on minicabs ;)

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  13. 14. Dec, 2011 / Sven Raphael Schneider:

    The American way is indeed way less confusing but in Germany, it everything is called Coriander as well. Fortunately, the new world comes up with innovative neologisms on occasion ;).

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  14. 14. Dec, 2011 / Molly:

    we encountered this when we first moved to London — took a good two weeks to find cilantro. we felt incredibly stupid once we figured out that we’d been staring at it for almost a half hour, trying to figure out what the coriander was. i can’t say i ever got in a fight about it though. i also remember distinctly that oregano is pronounced o-re-GAN-o, like origami. i couldn’t understand the poor bloke, had to have him repeat it three times before i caught on.

    and i believe Cilantro the restaurant is fairly new… there were absolutely none in London three years ago. i was there two months ago and noticed it for the first time.

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  15. 16. Dec, 2011 / Cherina | Quiet Wanderings:

    This article still has me in stitches. I am Australian and, we too, call it coriander. I am living with an American guy right now and we have this ‘discussion’ every time I cook with coriander…which seems to be often. He can’t get his head around our word either. “Why? Why would you call it that?” he says. Should I even mention the the whole boot/trunk and bonnet/hood fiasco! I travel a lot so my theory is…when in Rome…etc

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  16. 17. Dec, 2011 / Michael:

    Laughed and laughed. YOu can call it whatever you want: “Coriander” “Cilantro” “Chinese Parsely” “Mitsuba”, etc.
    It’s wretched in every language and by every name.

    http://www.ihatecilantro.com

    Cheerio !

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  17. 18. Dec, 2011 / LilMil:

    Oh i can definately vouch for your British friend. Here in Australia we too call it coriander – all of it. And we are almost always referring to the fresh stuff.

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  18. 10. Jan, 2012 / Katherine See Calacday:

    Hi Everywhereist! I am amused that two English-speaking people, an American and a Brit, could argue so much about an herb. And add another word “herb” pronunciation. Being a Filipino, with English as a second language, I find it strange that such incidents happen. I thought the differences are only “lift” and “elevator”, “biscuits” and “cookies”. Well, it is a nice story and very enlightening. Now my vocabulary has increased. Have a good day!

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  19. 01. Feb, 2012 / Steve:

    Years ago (the 70s) nobody that I knew in the Pacific NW knew about cilantro, but coriander seeds were used in baking, I believe. So, linguistically, it’s natural that it would come into American English as cilantro because most people I know were introduced to the fresh hhhhhherb through Mexican or Latin American cooking. They didn’t get the connection between the two. I mean, how many people actually ever see the seeds on a plant in their garden? They might see them in a McCormack’s bottle, though.

    I lived in Hawaii for a time and knew it as Chinese parsley and tried to convince my brother in Oregon to put it in his chili con carne recipe. He went to Safeway looking for Chinese parsley and came back with bok choi (for crying out loud, plus he still puts bok choi in his chili, wth). I live in Costa Rica now and it’s called “culantro” which makes me laugh because culo means ass and antro in some places like Mexico means a dive as in a scuzzy bar. Anyhow, there’s another version here in CR called culantro coyote (coyote ass dive bar?), which doesn’t even look like cilantro or culantro at all. The joys of language — it changes through people’s ignorance as much as anything else.

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    Everywhereist Reply:

    I laugh every time I see the word “culatello”. Even though I realize it’s supposed to be cut from that part of the pig. :)

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  20. 24. Jun, 2012 / Frank in FIGTREE NSW Near Sydney Australia:

    It doesn’t matter what you call it. It stinks. (See “stink bug”) Reminiscent of cat pee. Smells soapy sometimes. Overwhelmes the flavour of the food being served with it and generally is a waste of space on my plate. Why oh why has it become politically correct to like this stuff in recent years. OK it was used in hot countries for many years but, apart from the Spanish and Scandinavians (UUH) not so much in Europe generally until recently and NEVER in British cooking. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!!

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  21. 24. Jun, 2012 / Kitty:

    If it makes you feel better, the same happens with Spanish language. My husband is a spaniard and I’m an argentinian and we have this kind of argument every single day.

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  22. 03. Jan, 2013 / Kayleigh:

    I was looking up a recipe for a different Miso soup and noticed the word cilantro. I had NO idea what it was, not being a particularly avid cook. I Googled it to find this, well, astonishing realisation. I suppose we do have quite a few words different to one another, but I didn’t realise it went quite so far. And the herb! HA! I thought it only in video games did they say ‘erb. Although a fair few of our ilk are in the disuse of ‘h’, many of us still find it to be an important letter. Some of your spellings make some sense to me, ‘Draft’ (as in an alcohol) as ‘Draught’ (our variant) seems ridiculous. However, I don’t quite understand the exclusion of the letter ‘U’ in some words. That’s beyond me.
    LOVED YOUR BLOG.

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  23. 20. Jan, 2013 / Randomguy:

    Coriander in Australia where I live too. Never heard of cilantro until I was watching an american cooking show. Its funny that you associate it with mexican cuisine as that country is on your border, for we actually associate it with south east asian cuisine because of that regions proximity to us.

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  24. 07. Sep, 2013 / Expat:

    Bwahahahaah. This whole stream is cracking me up! Why do the Brits say FILLet instead of filet??

    As an American living in Amsterdam I’ve been searching for cilantro for two years but had to use coriander instead because it was all i could find. Hahaha it was the same damn thing and I didn’t even know it!

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    James Reply:

    if they are “cockney barra bois” they probably drop the t as they tend to get silenced

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  25. 10. Nov, 2013 / kevos:

    its coriander my American friends. Frankley i find it hard to accept any culenry argument from those whos countrymen invented bolony!
    Also can u stop calling Jelly- Jello. Minced beef – ground beef. And my biggest gripe: I dont mind u calling biscuits cookies But for Gods sake STOP STOP STOP calling Scones biscuits!!!!
    That said although as a classicly french trained British chef I dont think much of your food YOU ARE A GREAT PEOPLE. Long live America

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  26. 15. Jan, 2014 / john:

    There are two different plants. I grow both in my garden. They look similar but taste very different. One has a slightly rounder leaf and is used in Aisan cooking. I know this as coriander. The other is used in European type cooking more and tastes very similar to “curley parsley”. I have seen this in the shops in Australia labelled as “cilantro” , “flat leaved parsley”, and “continental parsley”. I have bought it in Italy as “cilantro”.
    I have lived in Europe, China, USA and now Australia, and seen the labels mixed up, or one not available, so the other labelled as both.

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  27. 06. Feb, 2014 / Chris Kelly:

    I’m coming from the other side of the argument.

    My GF recently bought me a Lebanese cookbook for Christmas. She was not to know that it was written by a US based chef.
    I was left perplexed by the following ingredients:

    Cilantro
    Garbanzo Beans
    Yellow Onion
    Green Onion
    Pearl Onion
    London Broil/Top Round

    On the subject of “Cilaaaaaaantro” as you pronounce it.

    Mint is mint. It comes in dried and fresh form.
    Parsley is parsley. It also comes in dried and fresh form.
    Coriander is bloody Coriander whether it’s dried or not!

    If you say “Hello I’d like some Coriander please” in a shop in England you will be given a fresh H-erb unless you state that you would like the the dried form. Why on earth would we use a different name for the fresh form and the dried form?? It’s the same bloody thing!

    Don’t even get me started on GARBANZO BEANS. Jaysus, you mean chick peas. And then there’s “Snow Peas.”

    But perhaps the most egregious US naming of food is reserved for onions: Yellow onion = onion. Green onion = spring onion, Pearl onion = shallot. How basic can you get. Just name things by the colOr (without the U).

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  28. 28. Feb, 2014 / Kate:

    I am English and was left perplexed recently when I read a recipe with ‘cilantro’ in it. I thought it was some kind of alcoholic liqueur until I looked it up and realised it was coriander.

    I think the reason for the difference is because England was invaded by the Normans many years ago which had a big influence on our food-related vocabulary. So we say courgettes where you say zucchini, aubergine when you say egg plant and coriander when you say cilantro. In the US you have more Italian and Spanish influences over your English that we simple don’t have. As long as we understand each other that’s all that matters.

    But it’s definitely coriander ;)

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  29. 11. Mar, 2014 / Nick g:

    Try looking at the Latin name for the plant, IE the universal identifier. Coriander is a derivation

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  30. 08. Apr, 2014 / Diane G:

    I hate cilantro and resent people saying I have a recessive gene. Do people who dislike fiver, chocolate, etc..have recessive genes? The leaves of the nasty herb is cilantro and the seeds are corriander.

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  31. 30. Jun, 2014 / Carol:

    Living in the Paris region as an American expat, I have not been able to find cilantro and now will try the feuilles de coriandre. I feel your frustration. I crave Mexican food and have to cook it since there are no restaurants nearby us. I keep telling the Mexicans I know back home that they need to bring their restaurant over here. Many Parisians cook their own. I’ve missed the cilantro in my salsa, in my fish tacos, etc. So I will try this now. Maybe it will turn up. Loved your story.

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  32. 15. Aug, 2014 / Linda:

    so if everyone but the US call it coriander…………..?

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