Everything you need to know about... coriander

Updated on 25 January 2011 | 0 Comments

One of the oldest spices known to man, coriander is now the UK's number one favourite herb. Why is it so popular? And how do some of the best chefs in Britain use it?

Growing up in an Indian household, where practically no savoury dish escaped a lavish garnish of fresh green coriander leaves, it never occurred to me that there might be people who loathe its taste. So much so that some have set up somewhat bemusing websites like I hate cilantro and Why some love or hate coriander.

I’m firmly in the former camp. I love it. Having grown up eating coriander from an early age, I appreciate the distinctive, assertive, warm and slightly mineral flavour and the fresh, grassy fragrance of frilly coriander leaves. I also like using the pale brown, oblong seeds as an aromatic spice. The seeds have a completely different taste to the leaves: mildly earthy with gentle notes of citrus peel. 

The history of coriander

One of the oldest spices known to man, coriander originated in southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. Those savvy ancient Egyptians and early physicians like Hippocrates, rather like modern ayurvedic practioners, used coriander in cooking as well as medicine; and like many modern chefs, Roman statesman Cato suggested chopped coriander be used to perk up jaded appetites.

Its Latin name is ‘coriandrum sativum’, and it is part of the Umbelliferae family, related to parsley. It’s also known as cilantro, particularly in America, and Chinese, Greek or Arab parsley elsewhere. It shouldn’t be confused with culantro, which is a related but different plant.

The word ‘coriander’ is believed to have derived from the Greek word ‘koris’, meaning ‘bed bug’ because some people believe that its smell resembles that of the bugs found in bedclothes. Not having smelt a bed bug, I cannot vouch for the truth of this!

The use of coriander in Britain

Coriander isn’t just some hip London herb brought to the rest of the nation’s consciousness by Delia: it was imported into Britain from southern Europe in the Bronze Age, and was popular throughout the medieval and Elizabethan periods, right into early 19th century. 

Mainly grown in Essex, the term ‘coriander’ was used as slang for ‘money’. Its popularity declined later in the 19th century, but has picked up in recent years. Due to our increasingly cosmopolitan tastes and love affair with curries, it’s UK’s number one favourite herb, according to recent reports in the national press. 

Culinary uses

Every part of coriander, not just the leaves and seeds, is edible. The stems are where most of the flavour lies, and the roots are crushed and used in Thai curry pastes. Even the small, lacy pinkish-white flowers add elegance to summer salads. The seeds are used whole or ground, and are often lightly toasted in a dry frying pan first to enhance their flavour.

Coriander seeds are widely used in Europe, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, India and south Asia. They’re added to soups, stews, vegetables, marinades, cakes, breads, pastries, pickles, Asian street food snacks, spice mixtures and curries. Ancient Romans used them to preserve meats, whereas modern Germans flavour cabbage dishes, sausages and game marinades with them.

In Andrea Oliver’s delicious whisky and maple glazed spice rubbed brisket of beef recipe, coriander seeds are used in conjunction with other spices to create a rich, flavoursome spice rub. Their relatively gentle, earthy taste balances the stronger flavours of other ingredients.

Meanwhile, in Josceline Dimbleby’s rich red quail curry, ground coriander adds a neutralising background note and cuts through the richness of other ingredients.

In Latin America, especially Mexico and Peru, Portugal, India and southeast Asia, coriander leaves are often added to fish, meat, poultry, salads, soups, stir-fries, casseroles and curries. For example, this Jamie Oliver recipe for ribeye stirfry, dan dan noodles and chilled hibiscus tea makes liberal use of coriander leaves to perk up and spotlight Asian flavours.

What are your favourite ways to use coriander? Let us know using the comments box below!

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