Thursday, February 18, 2010

Herbal Diplomacy

There are millions and millions of everyday facts about which I am unaware. This may come as a surprise to my four year old...well, not really, he regularly schools me on appropriate Lego construction. And, of course, I know I don't know much about a whole range of things. But, sometimes I learn something new that makes me feel like, "No freakin' way! How could I not have known this?"

This is how I come out the other side of my first lesson on cilantro vs. culantro. Of note: Microsoft Word does not recognize the word "culantro" - I am not alone! Okay. So, the other day Vilma was telling me to get cilantro, but not cilantro (which apparently is actually "verdurita"), I should get culantro. Which is the same, but not - because the leaves are wider and it's very healthy and you can drink it in a tea (or something) and it's good for kids…Vilma's list of examples of its uses and the detailed description did nothing to clarify for me what exactly I was supposed to get.

I showed up in the herb section of the nearest supermarket - Jumbo. A quick word on Jumbo - it's pretty much identical to Super Wal-Mart. I don't shop at Wal-Mart back home so I can't really say, but I do imagine that Wal-Mart is better at keeping their shelves regularly stocked one week with the things you saw the week before, but that's another story. However, picture Super Wal-Mart. And, picture a giant fresh herbs section. They actually have some killer herbs here! I have made the best pesto of my life here with giant, green, healthy bunches of basil that sell for about 30 cents. Anyway, you have the mental picture. Then imagine me looking at these big piles of green and trying to figure out which one is the culantro. I had a garden back home and my step-dad keeps a large plot as well, so I feel pretty confident about my herb identification skills. Oh, and I worked for several years at Central Market in Austin - so I feel like I should be able to find this mystery herb. But, no luck. To Vilma's disappointment I returned home with the same old cilantro that I have always known (and found impossible to grow in a hot summer, Texas garden).

When I got home I looked up "culantro" in my Spanish-English dictionary and found "coriander." Okay, so I always thought coriander was essentially the seeds of cilantro. This is where I start to assume that Vilma is just mistaken - not me. You would think I would have learned my lesson in this area. Hmmm…professional nanny/cook who has lived in DR for ten years vs. me (who is not those things). Seriously, is this Amerocentrism at its most basic or what! So, I had this plan to Google all this and get to the bottom of it. But, I forgot about it and figured, "Whatever. We can just use the normal stuff."

Then yesterday Vilma went to the market with me and showed me the culantro. At last, this prompted me to do a little research. Cilantro and culantro are cousins. Culantro is very common in the Caribbean and yet another cousin is common in Thai cooking. The taste is similar to cilantro, but not identical. Culantro is also called "spirit herb" because, historically, it was used to treat epilepsy. For better or worse, I tend to use Wikipedia as my first line of research - so, read more here if you're interested.

Now, back to Amerocentrism. There's this thing that happens when you're frustrated with the way something is going in a foreign country - you start to think, "Well, they must just be confused." This happens whether you like to admit it or not. For all the times you think, "Okay, I have no idea what they're talking about. I'm an idiot. I am so out of place here," there are going to be times where you actually believe that you know and they don't. What I am finding I have to do is put myself in constant school mode. I have to think of every day as a classroom where I am being given a new set of information. And, when the information directly contradicts what I know (or, to be more Zen, believe) to be true, I am trying to remember that what I am being taught is not about the facts of the case, but the cultural experience of my teachers. In other words, it is not always necessary to adopt the practices of another culture to understand it, to be one with it, to learn from it. Here's me now adding this to the list of things I should have known when I lived abroad in my early twenties and adding it underlined to the list of things we should really remember from a diplomatic perspective every single day.


  1. Hi! You don't know me, but I'm a Foreign Service spouse and came across your blog a week or so ago. What a great idea! Although I guess mine would have been called For Lack of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese back then.
    Great herb research. When we were in Trinidad, I always was told shadow beni was similar to cilantro, but I never bought any. It was more a cleanliness issue than anything else, though.

  2. Zoe,

    Glad you're enjoying the blog. Sorry I didn't respond earlier - I am still learning to navigate blogger and didn't realize you had commented. Coincidentally, I had added your blog to my blog list today. I enjoy your writing style. Keep posting! I look forward to hearing about your adventures in Italy when you get there! Best wishes!