Cilantro is an essential ingredient in a range of cuisines
Beautiful Plants by Joanne Howdle
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) – also known as “Chinese parsley” – is an annual herb belonging to the celery family Apiaceae. Although it is believed to have originated in Iran, coriander grows across a wide area of North Africa, Southern Europe and Southwest Asia.
The botanical, which can reach 50 centimeters in height, has variably shaped leaves, broadly lobed at the base of the plant, and taller and slender and feathery on the flowering stems.
Coriander flowers vary in color from pale pink to white. The usually small, round seeds vary in color from yellow to brown.
The scientific name comes from the Greek koriannon, a combination of koris – a stinky bug – and annon – a fragrant anise. Taken together, coriander’s full scientific name literally means “the fragrant herb that smells buggy.”
It was the unpleasant smell of coriander that probably led to its use as a medicine. The ancient Greeks believed that anything with such a strong and unpleasant smell must surely possess powerful healing and/or preventive attributes.
Hippocrates of Kos (c. 480 – c. 370 BC), the ancient Greek physician often called the “father of medicine” in recognition of his lasting contribution to the field, recommended the use of coriander in ointment to relieve arthritis and rheumatism and drunk as a digestive to relieve flatulence.
During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, coriander was considered an aphrodisiac, so it was added to love potions, while the Chinese believe that those who consume coriander seeds will be rewarded with the gift of immortality.
All parts of the plant are edible, and the use of coriander as a food is first recorded in a Japanese text dating from the 10th century AD. It is believed that the Spanish conquistadors introduced this tasty herb to Mexico and Peru.
Once there, cilantro quickly became an essential ingredient in chili and other dishes. In fact, the prevalence of cilantro leaf in Mexican cuisine, where it is essential in guacamole, led to the adoption of the Spanish name for the herb “cilantro” in the United States of America.
Coriander seeds are widely used as a spice in Asian and European cuisine. Ground coriander seeds are a key ingredient in curry powder and the Indian garam marsala spice blend.
Roasting coriander seeds intensifies their flavor and they are eaten in this form in India as a snack known as dhana dal. Coriander seeds are used to flavor sausages in Germany and South Africa and are commonly found in pickle juice for pickles and other pickled vegetables. Coriander root is also used as a spice in Thai cuisine.
Coriander is the second most important and prolific botanical used in gin production after juniper (Juniper communis). Indeed, many 18th century gin recipes call for equal amounts of juniper and coriander.
However, the use of coriander in making gin is almost exclusively about the fruit known as coriander seed, rather than the botanically fresh leaves. In the making of gin, coriander seeds provide a restrained nutty, spice, and citrus note that most often shows up near the end of the drink.
The citrus flavors of the seeds complement the citrus oils of the lemon or orange peels also used in the recipe of different types of gin. The coriander seeds used in the production of gin come mainly from Bulgaria, Moldova, Morocco, Romania and Russia, with the seeds from each country having significantly different characters.
- Joanne Howdle is Head of Interpretation and Engagement at Dunnet Bay Distillers Ltd.