Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Cilantro

It’s not an exaggeration to say that cilantro is an oldie but goodie. The wispy green-leafed herb known to much of the English-speaking world as coriander is thought to be among the first group of domesticated plants, dating to the 6th millennium. Beloved worldwide, both cilantro and its dried coriander seed are seasoning staples of countless cuisines and historically revered for their medicinal properties.

In this country, there’s a better than average chance you got your first taste of cilantro (its Spanish name) only in the past 30 years by way of Tex-Mex restaurants serving up tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole, which have become snack staples of American households.

Coriander seed remains an unsung hero in the kitchen and has not enjoyed the same level of fame in this country – at least not yet. 

Brief History

Cilantro is native to the Mediterranean, and many sources point to 6,000 BC and the Nahal Hemar cave, an ancient archeological site in Israel, as the time and place of its origin.

Coriander seed is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of Exodus. Here’s one translation: “The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.” It was found in the tomb of Egyptian pharaohs, including King Tut and Ramses II.

It’s mentioned in the works of classical Greek playwright Aristophanes and in Materia Medica, the ancient herbal medicine text written by Greek physician Dioscorides Roman gastronome Apicius gives coriander a shout out in His De Re Coquinaria (Of Culinary Matters), the world’s first known cookbook written in 14 A.D.

Factual Nibbles

The word coriander is derived from the Latin word coriandrum and the Greek word koris, which means “bug,” a reference to the herb’s pungent aroma.

Even though they are different parts of the same plant, cilantro and coriander have different cooking properties and flavor notes and cannot be used interchangeably in recipes, according to cookbook author Monica Bhide.

In most parts of the English speaking world, the herb is known as coriander leaf or green coriander and the spice as coriander.

Cultivation

Botanically, coriandrum sativum is a member of the Umbelliferae (parsley) family, which means it’s also related to carrots and parsnips. Given its parsley connections, it’s no surprise that cilantro is sometimes referred to as Chinese parsley.

Given its prominence in cuisines around the world, cilantro is grown everywhere from Egypt to Mexico, India to Canada and nearly everything in between. Where you might not readily find the herb is France. Tony Hill, the author of The Spice Lover’s Guide to Herbs and Spices (and the original force behind World Spice Merchants in Seattle) writes of two varieties of coriander seeds – European (lightly ridged, yellow-brown shade, lemony fragrance) and Indian (smaller, creamier in flavor and less sharp.

Seasonality

Cilantro loves the sun but not extreme heat. It flourishes during the spring and fall (in temperate zones) but bolts and hardens with the arrival of summer.

Environmental Impact and Food Safety

In the past few years, there have been several multi-state recalls of conventional cilantro due to salmonella contamination. In August 2012, a California farm recalled more than 1,600 cases of fresh cilantro after government samples tested positive for salmonella. (That produce testing program, the Microbiological Data Program, shut down at the end of last year, due to budget cuts.)

As you’ll read under the nutrition section, the irony of this spate of salmonella-related recalls is that cilantro contains naturally occurring antibacterial compounds that have been studied for their ability to kill salmonella.

Although you won’t find cilantro on the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, your best bet, given the herb’s food safety troubles on industrial farms, is to buy from a small-scale and local sources whenever possible and talk to the grower about production methods. (Or grow your own!) At the supermarket, we recommend buying organic cilantro. (See our veggie rule of thumb.) And most importantly, wash it.

Characteristics

As anyone who’s ever tasted cilantro will tell you, the flavor (and often the aroma) of fresh cilantro is unforgettable and unlike anything else – where musky meets citrus – a flavor profile that you either love or hate.

What to Look For

No yellowing or wilted leaves, which are signs of decay. Fresh bunches should smell bright and citrusy, not moldy or dusty. They should be dry and free of dark green goop, which tends to accumulate around the stems when cilantro is ready for the compost bin.

Nutrition

Cilantro covers the bases for several nutrients, including calcium, potassium, iron, vitamins A, E and K, and folate. The seeds are considerably rich in fiber – more than two grams in two teaspoons.

For millennia, cilantro and coriander have been considered a holistic medical wonder, used to treat various ailments, including indigestion, flatulence and insomnia.

A 2004 study suggests that cilantro may possess a natural antibiotic that’s effective in killing salmonella. According to the study, which was published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, cilantro leaves contain an antibacterial compound called dodecanal that is showing promise as an alternative to certain pharmaceutical antibiotics.

It’s also been studied as a possible treatment for diabetes.

Cilantro has shown promise as a natural detoxifier and chelation agent, flushing heavy metals out of the body after chemotherapy or after the removal of mercury-based dental fillings.

What to Do with It

Here are some examples of how cilantro and coriander are used around the world:

Mexican cooking doyenne Diana Kennedy writes in her most recent work, Oaxaca Al Gusto, that fresh cilantro sprigs are used in Oaxacan cookery “to season soups/broths, stews, and sauces” and that coriander seeds are used for sauces in certain parts of the region.

In her most recent book, The Food of Morocco, Mediterranean culinary expert Paula Wolfert explains that cilantro is considered one of the most important herbs in Moroccan cooking, that among many things, it’s used to season olives, various soups and “endows many tagines with its special flavor.”

Su Mei-Yu, author of Cracking the Coconut, writes that cilantro (and in particular its root, which is pounded and used to make curry paste), is among the “big four Seasonings” of Thai cookery (salt, garlic and Thai peppercorns are the other three); that “Thai cooking wouldn’t be what it is without this intensely aromatic root.” According to Mei-Yu, the use of cilantro roots is borrowed from southern Chinese cookery.

Boerewors, the circular sausage of South Africa, is traditionally very heavily seasoned with coriander seeds.

Indian cooking master Madhur Jaffrey refers to cilantro as “the parsley of the eastern and southern half of Asia.”

And Fuchsia Dunlop author of the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province says that cilantro is “one of two herbs that are widely used in Hunanese cooking” (where it’s known as xiang cai, or “fragrant vegetable”) and used in salads, stir-fries and as a garnish.

Coriander seed figures prominently in Borodinsky bread, a Russian rye bread.

Storage

Keep fresh cilantro refrigerated, standing upright in a tall glass, like a bouquet of flowers, and loosely cover with a plastic bag. Cilantro is perishable and will quickly break down, and storing it in the crisper in a plastic bag will show just how fast it can turn to mush.

For coriander seeds, you’ll get a lot more mileage if you buy them whole (a staple of bulk sections) and grind them on an as-needed basis with a mortar and pestle or electric coffee grinder used expressly for spices. The difference in flavor is incomparable, and the house will smell wonderful. As with all spices, store away from heat and light.

Pro tips

Moroccan cooking doyenne Paula Wolfert suggests using a food processor to grind cilantro leaves, after they’ve been washed and squeezed fry, to add to soups or as a garnish. She suggests prepping a large bunch of cilantro this way and then storing in mini plastic bags to be frozen for later use. We regularly have a bunch of cilantro on hand to stir into a pot of black beans, garnish a veggie stir-fry, or to give a Thai edge to cut-up pineapple or mango, or even cucumber. (For even more kicks, throw in a handful of chopped peanuts, a splash of soy sauce and some fresh minced chile pepper!)

Planning to put up a batch of pickles this summer? Consider making your own pickling spice, which typically includes coriander seeds.

Coriander seeds are among my go-to spices. I use it in spice rubs for chicken or fish (along with some smoked paprika, coriander, salt, brown sugar and a smidge of ground coffee), and whenever I’m making my own curry.

Recipe

Coriander, Thyme, Cinnamon and Pepper Marinade
From The Mediterranean Herb Cookbook by Georgeanne Brennan

Try this wet spice rub next time you’re grilling; it’s friendly to both meat and veg. I’m thinking how fun it might be to slather on corn on the cob or eggplant after it comes off the grill.

2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ ; dried bay leaf
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Place coriander seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, thyme and bay leaf in a spice grinder or mortar and grind finely. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the olive oil to make a paste.

Makes about ¼ ; cup.

Mint-Cilantro Chutney
Adapted from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide
This is a daily staple in homes across India, used to season everything from rice to meat and as a dip for chaat (snacks) such as pakoras. Think of it as Indian salsa. It’s hot, cool and utterly addictive.

1 cup packed cilantro (use stems only if the cilantro is young and fresh), washed and thoroughly dried
1 cup packed mint leaves, washed and thoroughly dried
1 green Serrano chile pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
½ ; small red onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ ; teaspoon salt
Up to 2 tablespoons water

In a blender or the bowl of a food processor, blend all the ingredients except for the water until you have a smooth paste. Add the water, plus more if needed, as well as salt to taste.

Transfer to bowl and wrap with plastic until ready to use. Best served slightly cool, not cold.

Option: For more body, add 1 medium plum tomato to the mixture when blending.

 

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