Know Your Herbs: Coriander
Have you ever plugged “coriander” into a search engine only to find information about both coriander and cilantro? I always just shake my head and ask, “What’s seems to be the problem, world?”
Here in Australia, there appears to be no confusion: the whole plant is coriander and its leaves are, quite simply, coriander leaves. No fuss, no muss. Elsewhere, the plant is coriander and the leaves are cilantro. Scientifically-speaking, the entire plant is technically called cilantro until it reaches reproductive maturity.
The seeds, commonly dried ground into powder, are also referred to as coriander. If you’ve sampled both the leaves and seeds you won’t be surprised that they’re sometimes separated by name – they have distinctly different flavours and uses.
Even setting semantics aside, coriander is a complex and polarising herb. Many of us enjoy the fresh, delectable of coriander leaves while others claim they taste like noxious, chemical-laden soap. It’s truly a love it or hate it situation. Why does it hit people’s taste buds so differently? We can blame a combination of personal taste preferences and the genes influencing our sense of smell.
Despite the existence of a staunch, coriander-hating opposition, coriander has managed to gain international traction. It’s become a rather posh ingredient in recent years, but its popularity can be traced back thousands of years. It is featured in every continent’s culinary tradition. Coriander seeds dominate the flavour palette of many Middle Eastern, Asian and African dishes. The oldest discovered coriander seeds, thought to be over 8,000 years old, were unearthed in an Israeli cave. Other ancient vestiges of the plant and early Sanskrit documentation both point to purposeful coriander cultivation in India approximately 6,000 years ago.
The plant has numerous health benefits and medicinal uses which were recognised by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The delicate, pleasing aroma of coriander was distilled into oils and perfumes, and live coriander plants graced gardens and sacred sites to imbue them with a lovely fragrance.
Coriander is celebrated throughout Latin America. It made the journey across the Atlantic with European settlers, firmly took root, and has acquired countless more aliases in regional dialects and indigenous languages. Fresh coriander leaf is found adorning many typical dishes, mashed into guacamole, and tossed into virtually any soup or salad. The fresher the better – coriander leaf is typically added as a last-minute garnish because heat is known to kill its potent flavour.
Its ability to travel far and wide came from the seed’s sheer endurance. You could feasibly pull out a container of coriander seeds from your spice rack and sow them directly. The light, sweet, citrus and floral flavours make coriander seed a welcome addition to make foods and beverages. Coriander is often used to bake bread, brew light beers, and pickle vegetables. The flavour is so gentle and pleasant that the seeds can be roasted and crunched on as a snack!
While the seeds and leaves get more attention, the entire coriander plant is edible. In Thailand, the coriander root is used to make stir fry and curry paste.
There are so many possibilities with coriander – even if you find the leaf flavour unpleasant – why not give it a try in your garden and kitchen?