This delightful and pungent herb belongs to the carrot or Umbelliferae family, and lends its unmistakable flavour to cuisines as diverse as Asian, South and Central American, African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) has an extremely long history of use by humans, with evidence dating back as far as 5000 BC. The first written evidence is provided by Egyptian papyri dating to around 1550 BC, where it is described as a food item and for medicinal purposes such as a cough reliever and a tonic.
The herb enjoyed a brief popularity in France during the 17th and 18th centuries, mainly as the principal ingredient in Eau de Carne - a cologne and liqueur, but also as a key ingredient in chartreuse. The name is derived from the Greek koris, which means bugs, and interestingly Sri Lanka is the one Asian nation in which the herb is not widely used, many cooks insisting the herb smells like crushed bugs!
All parts of the plant are of use in the kitchen, the leaves, roots and seeds.
Coriander leaves are used either whole, or only lightly chopped, as minced coriander has a tendency to bruise and turn brown. They are used in salads, soups, sauces, dips and salsas, as well as being scattered over a finished dish where the residual heat will release the herbs pungent aroma. Coriander leaves have a warm, almost camphorous flavour, combined with a fresh and lingering vitality.
Coriander roots have a deeper, more intense flavour than the leaves. They are favoured in South East Asia where they are either used whole to scent soups, or made into pastes, most famously the curry pastes of Thailand
Coriander seeds are sold dried and have an alarmingly different flavour to the fresh herb, so much that they are treated in a completely different manner. The seed is used whole in cuisines such as Portuguese and German where it lends citrussy overtones to slow cooked meat and vegetable dishes. Many pickling solutions rely on coriander seed to give a subtle orange taste the finished product. However, the most common use of the seed is in spice and curry blends of the Indian subcontinent and neighboring countries, where it is second only to cumin in ubiquity.
When purchasing fresh coriander, look for healthy dark green leaves that show no sign of yellowing or wilting. Try to buy coriander with their roots still attached, even if you don't intend to use them. They are an indicator of freshness. When you get your bunch home, immediately remove the roots and store them separately, when left on they cause the leaves to wilt. Wrap the leaves loosely in a damp kitchen towel and store in the refrigerator. Always wash coriander well before use, as they are notorious dirt traps - especially the roots and stems.
Purchase coriander seeds whole, grinding your own as needed. Ground coriander loses its freshness rapidly and many recipes call for the whole seed to be used. Give the seeds a light toasting in a dry fry pan before use to release the pungent oils and increase flavour.
In North America coriander is known as cilantro, which is the Mexican word for the plant. Other common names include Chinese parsley and Greek Parsley. Here are some other ethnic names for coriander.
Thailand - pak chee
Vietnam - ngo
Philipinnes - kaumbar
Malaysia - daun ketumbar
India - dhania pattar
Israel (Hebrew) - Kusbara ¹
Indonesian - ketoembar ²
¹Courtesy of Footprints
²Courtesy of fuzzy and blue