Coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.) belongs to the flowering family Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) along with parsley, chervil, and dill. It is one of the oldest and most diverse culinary and medicinal herbs to be used by mankind. The coriander plant provides two seasonings for the price of one — the fresh green herb and the spice seed, each with a different identity and use. Coriandrum stems from the Greek kóris, or “bug.” Sativum refers to “cultivated.”
Coriander is native to Mediterranean Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It is mentioned as a remedy for digestive disorders in Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from 1550 B.C. Evidence of coriander oil, the seed, and loaves of bread containing coriander seeds were discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, pharaoh of Egypt in 1332 B.C. In Roman Britain, bread was made with coriander seed; the tradition was carried to America in the 17th century.
In the United States, Canada, and most of Latin America, coriander’s herbal leaves and stems are called cilantro, the adopted Spanish name. Globally, C. sativum has many vernacular, or common, names, two being Mexican and Chinese parsley. In Europe and certain other countries, the leaves and seed go by the name coriander. The International Herb Association designated cilantro as the Herb of the Year in 2017.
Cilantro’s global fans are eating more than ever. It is the quintessential Mexican herb for salsa, guacamole, and pico de gallo. Cilantro is indispensable to Chinese dishes and the backbone of Vietnamese cooking. In Taipei, I watched street vendors pile paper-thin flour wrappers high with finely shaved peanut brittle and cilantro sprigs, then roll them up for eating. The tasty combination inspired me to toss peanuts and cilantro into rice dishes and noodle salads.
Cilantro’s roots run deeply through Southeast Asia and the Middle East. A celebrity chef in India started a social media campaign to make cilantro (dhanya) the country’s national herb. In Thailand, it is integral to curries; cooks pulverize the roots for seasoning pastes. Create a signature cocktail by infusing gin or vodka and simple syrup with tender, young cilantro roots. Zhoug, an addictive Yemeni condiment with cilantro, enhances meats, vegetables, pita, and yogurt. In Eurasian Georgia, chikhirtma is an herbal chicken and egg soup; the broth is simmered with a bunch of leafy coriander — essential to Georgian cuisine.
When immature coriander fruit dries into a seed spice, it acquires a warm, floral essence with a hint of citrus. Flavor notes vary depending on the region the seed is sourced. Most is consumed in the form of curry powder. A basic component of the Indian spice box, coriander is essential for making garam masala spice mixes. It is found in Middle Eastern spice blends, such as Moroccan ras el hanout and spicy Ethiopian berbere. Used in brewing since the Middle Ages, coriander is also a key botanical in gin and is used in Bénédictine liqueur and Aquavit, a Scandinavian distilled spirit.
Make coriander flower liqueur by steeping 2 cups fresh coriander flowers, ¼ cup fine sugar, and 1½ cups vodka for two weeks. Use the seed in pickling, charcuterie, meat dishes, soups, and baked goods. Unless you are pickling or brining, dry roast whole seed to activate the essential oils and boost flavor. Grind seed as needed.
From the start, coriander had an image problem. In 1597, herbalist John Gerard called the plant “a very stinking herbe.” People are rarely indifferent to its smell or taste — they either love it or hate it! The 99-year-old British food writer Diana Kennedy, authority on traditional Mexican cuisine, advises, “People who don’t like cilantro … please don’t invite them.” Culinary icon Julia Child disliked the herb, as do many Korean and Japanese tasters.
Cilantro fans use descriptors like earthy, sweet, citrusy, musky, peppery, and freshly cut grass. Cilantrophobes insist the herb tastes medicinal, like soapy grass clippings, whiffs of burnt rubber, and squashed stinkbugs. Taste is subjective, but the ancients wrote that coriander reminded them of smelly bugs too.
Research has been aimed at isolating the offending odor compounds and examining flavor perceptions and preferences. Studies suggest it may be hardwired in the genes to dislike cilantro. A 2006 study at Clemson University determined that at least two compounds in cilantro are aldehydes, powerful odorants that are found in the emissions of stinkbugs. Other aldehydes are a byproduct of soap. People that have a specific olfactory receptor gene are particularly sensitive to these aldehydes and their off-putting characteristics. In the perfume industry, aldehyde molecules add fragrance — think Chanel No. 5!
Coriander’s reputation had declined in the U.S. until the mid-20th century because of the odor/taste factor. In the late ’60s, gastronome James Beard published a guacamole recipe in his new cookbook advising cooks to add a great deal of cilantro. Coriander was mainly being grown for seed since it typically bolts early in the season. After many field trials, growers discovered slow-bolting varieties with better leaf production. With the influx of immigrants, interest in cilantro boomed. By the ’80s, Americans were receptive to the flavorful dishes and ingredients of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; cilantro found its niche in the nation’s patchwork of ethnic foods.
Cilantro is sometimes confused with tasty culantro (Eryngium foetidum L.), an herb that’s favored by Latin and Asian cooks. In the cilantro family, its taste is similar but far more robust. The herbs are interchangeable, but there’s a popular Spanish saying, Bueno es culantro, pero no tanto, meaning, “Culantro is good, but not too much!” That’s good advice!