Culantro is essential for an authentic taste in many West Indian and Latin American dishes. Its strong cilantro-like flavor shows up in Puerto Rican sofrito and Panamanian guiso. The problem is that it’s not exactly a popular herb outside of its home region, so you may have a hard time finding it. Try one of the substitutes below if you’re looking for the best possible alternative to culantro.
Your best bet: Cilantro
Cilantro is the herb that has the most in common with culantro. Not only do the names look similar when written out, but the flavors are also similar as well. You can use cilantro in any dish that requires culantro and get a similar flavor. As a culantro substitute, cilantro has the advantage of being easy to find. You should be able to find affordable bundles of it in most grocery stores.
Cilantro does have one major difference: it is not as pungent as culantro. The mildness means that you will have to make adjustments when using cilantro as a culantro substitute. By some estimates, culantro is 10 times stronger than cilantro. To get the same amount of flavor in your dish with cilantro, use 10 times more of it than the amount that the recipe specifies for culantro.
The point at which you add it to the dish is also important since you can add culantro at the start of the cooking process rather than at the end. Culantro will not lose its flavor even over a long cooking time.
A decent second choice: Papalo
Its name shortened from papaloquelite, papalo is a Mexican herb with a similar aroma and flavor to both culantro and cilantro. Papalo has been used as a food herb since the Aztec era and is native to the same region as culantro — it grows all over the Caribbean. Papaloquelite translates to “butterfly herb”. It’s a close enough match to culantro and cilantro that you can use it in place of both. Some describe its flavor as being like a cross between cilantro and arugula.
Its aroma is another matter. Other names for papalo include yerba porosa and quilquina. One Brazilian slang term for it is black vulture’s marigold, which is an indicator of its pungent smell. The intense aroma is a characteristic that papalo has in common with culantro, which has a smell that some liken to the odor of stink bugs. Papalo has a stronger flavor than cilantro but not as strong a flavor as culantro. Like culantro, papalo is a great addition to salsas. You may find papalo in Latin grocery stores and those that stock Caribbean produce.
In a pinch: Rue
While almost unknown in the United States, rue is still a common herb in many European kitchens where its flavor is a complement to cheeses and alcoholic beverages. You will still see a sprig of the herb in some bottles of raki.
Rue also shows up in Ethiopian cuisine. Ethiopians use it in salads, meat dishes and as a flavoring for coffee. Rue might not be a perfect culantro substitute in some raw preparations like salsa but it should work well in most cooked dishes that require culantro and it is a great salad green.
Thai basil is another pungent herb that might work in some recipes that require culantro. Although its flavor profile differs from culantro’s, it should still provide an enjoyable dish. While it offers more concentrated flavor and aroma when compared to some other substitutes on this list, it is not quite as pungent as culantro.