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Cilantro and parsley are often confused as there are similarities between their appearances and uses. They are, in fact, members of the same family, Apaceae, which also counts carrots and parsnips among its members. Parsley and cilantro, however, are two very different plants with subtle variations in appearance, taste, and culinary use.
Cilantro is the leaves of the coriander plant, Coriandrum sativum. As well as the leaves, the seeds are often used in cooking. Parsley, Petroselium crispum, has two varieties: curly and flat-leaf, known popularly as Italian parsley.
The first difference between cilantro and parsley is appearance. Cilantro is easily differentiated from curly parsley, which has thickly ruffled leaves. Flat-leaf parsley is a little harder to distinguish as both this type of parsley and cilantro leaves are flat, three-lobed, and serrated and appear very similar. Cilantro, however, tends to be a much deeper green than flat-leaf parsley, which is a rather bright green. The leaves of cilantro also appear to have sharper serrations.
Another difference between these herbs is taste. Curly parsley has a very mild, grassy taste and is rarely used in cooking. Flat-leaf parsley, although having a stronger flavor that better lends itself to cooking, is still not as strong tasting as cilantro. Cilantro has a strong, citrusy, almost perfume-like taste. While many people find this taste very appealing, others find it unpleasant and somewhat chemical and soap-like.
Cilantro and parsley are also used somewhat differently in cooking. Cilantro is commonly used in Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Latin American cuisine, while parsley tends to be used with more prevalence in Europe, the Middle East, and North America. As curly parsley has very little flavor, it is generally used only as a garnish.
Cilantro is used mainly in small amounts in cooking due to its strong flavor; however, some Indian and Central Asian dishes use it in large quantities as cooking tends to reduce the flavor. As a result, cilantro is often added to cooked dishes just before serving or as a garnish. Cilantro is used fresh to add taste, aroma, and color to a variety of dishes, including curries, chutneys, and salsas. It is also popular in a variety of meat dishes, salads, and soups.
Flat-leaf parsley is also used to add taste, aroma, and color to dishes. It is commonly used as a seasoning in soups, salads, and sauces. Flat-leaf parsley is also an essential ingredient of bouquet garni, a component of soup bases.
Cilantro and parsley are both considered to be rich in antioxidants. In addition, cilantro is considered to have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. It is high in iron, magnesium, and dietary fiber. Parsley meanwhile, contains high levels of folic acid and vitamin C, making both plants good dietary choices.