Updated: Oct 25, 2021
When we come across the word spices, we immediately relate it to ‘spicy’. Though spicy does not mean burn-your-guts hot, masses assume it to be so. While most of the spices have a peculiar flavour profile, and one or two ways of use for various applications, we have this chameleon of spices- Coriander.
Coriander is derived from Coriandrum Sativum. Coriander spice can be casually found in any grocery store as whole seeds or powdered. Colours ranging from light green to yellow to dark brown, coriander seeds possess an earthy, floral flavour. When these seeds are toasted, the floral notes fade away and what takes its place is the nutty aroma of toasted coriander. Application of heat changes not only the colours but also the flavour of this spice. Furthermore, when pounded coarsely, they release some of the floral notes blended with robust nutty ones. And powdered coriander is even more different. By now it has lost its robust, earthy, toasty flavour and what we have is a mild, herby aroma with floral under notes. Quite amazing how one spice boasts different flavours depending on its form and application of heat.
Besides India, coriander is also grown in Morocco, Turkey and Romania. They say coriander is native to Iran, as the oldest coriander seeds have been found at an excavation site in Iran that can be dated back to 7000 BC. Coriander also holds a mention in Moroccan literature Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC) and Knossos tablets (1375-1200 BC). Egyptian burial sites also have evidence of coriander seeds used in tombs of the kings and princes. Sanskrit literature by Panini (4th century BC)has a mention of kustumburu which means coriander in Aramaic language, used in Persia. It is quite evident that there were trade relations between all these countries thousands of years ago, and coriander was one of the commodities that seemed to be quite popular.
Coriander seeds when planted give us the coriander plant. Also known as cilantro, the coriander plant is a major part of Mexican, South and South-East Asian cuisines. The leaves of this plant bear yet a completely different taste. The flavour oils of this plant are released only when the leaves(or stems) are plucked. The plucking action causes a rapid release of an aldehyde in the coriander plant which is quite similar to an aldehyde produced by some insects. Ironically, koris in Greek means bugs. And because of the presence of a certain olfactory receptor (which is genetic), some people find coriander leaves ‘soapy’ or ‘chemical-like. While others who are missing these receptors are really not ‘missing’ on anything, to be honest! The freshness of chopped coriander leaves in guacamole or salsa or garnished on pav bhaji or mutton curry, is incomparable. Not just visually appealing, it is quite refreshing on our palate. One way of getting rid of the ‘soapy’ taste would be to cook the leaves off or grind them before adding. Application of heat takes away that special aldehyde leaving behind an astringent taste to the leaves and stem. Another interesting part of the coriander plant is its root. A common ingredient in Thai cuisine, cilantro root has yet another dimension when it comes to flavour. Rinsed and cleaned cilantro roots along with bruised lemongrass, galangal, lime leaf, hot peppers and fresh-squeezed coconut milk form the base of most Thai curries.
Coriander can be planted either for seeds or as a herb. When planted for using the leaves, it needs to be harvested every week or two. An overgrown coriander plant will start producing seeds. When this happens, its leaves lose the crisp flavour. All the energy is now concentrated on producing little seeds to ensure the plant reproduces many of its own. Thus, you can either have the seeds or the leaves. Growing leaves is definitely more labour intensive than seeds. Making sure the leaves are plucked at the right time will keep the plant evergreen. However, the only labour involved when growing coriander seeds is watering the plant regularly, and of course the harvesting of seeds. The colour, flavour and size of coriander seeds depend on soil and the amount of water. Coriander plant requires loamy soil that can trap the moisture for its roots. That being said, coriander seeds need minimum water and abundant sunlight. No wonder, Rajasthan and MP lead India’s production of coriander seeds.
Coriander in Indian Kitchens
Coriander holds an important place in Indian spice boxes as ‘Famous Four’, the other three being Turmeric, Cayenne, and Cumin. You may also address them as the ‘usual suspects. Most of the communities in India use coriander in addition to cumin- dhano-jeero as it is fondly called in Gujarat. The strong, earthiness of cumin can be mellowed down by coriander. Coriander is also known to be a ‘catalyst spice’. Overpowering flavours of certain spices can be subtly diluted by adding coriander powder. Most of the meat recipes will mention the use of coriander, either in powdered form or whole seeds or crushed seeds. Coriander is a great digestive and has cooling properties. Therefore, recipes like Lal Maas, which literally means Red Meat (Red comes from the excessive use of cayenne pepper powder)- hot, heavy and spicy preparation needs the cooling effect of coriander to save your intestines from burning. Besides the seeds, roughly chopped coriander leaves almost go with anything- tacos, pho, curries, baos, kebabs, nan… the list is endless. Not just as a spice or herb, coriander is an excellent palate cleanser too. Split coriander seeds, with the outer husk removed, are soaked in salted water, then sun-dried to make this excellent post-meal digestive and palate cleanser called ‘dhaniya dal’/ coriander dal. Some mixtures feature coriander dal with candied fennel seeds- an all-time favourite at Indian restaurants. The salty, grassy flavour of coriander dal will not even remotely remind you of coriander seeds or cilantro leaves.
If you don’t have this spice in your spice cabinet, don’t wait for it. Make sure you pick up some next time you are doing a round of groceries. Look for bigger and greener seeds or yellow ones over the little brown ones. Some seeds will have floral, nutty flavours (Indian product), while some have a lemony, grassy and woody feel. Depending on the presence of linalool and pinene (two types of terpenes), coriander seeds acquire varying flavours. And if you already have a bottle of this spice, bring it out and start experimenting! Goes well with most curries and meat dishes!