For at least four thousand years, this versatile herb has enlivened the dishes and drinks of cuisines across the world
By Lakshmi Sridharan, California
Coriandrum sativum, popularly known as cilantro or Chinese parsley, is an aromatic herb as well as a spice. The name coriander is derived from the Greek word koris, meaning—unfortunately—“bedbug.” To the Greeks, crushed unripe coriander seeds and leaves smelled like crushed bedbugs. Fortunately, that’s not the way the rest of the world thinks of coriander! Widely used in Indian, Mexican, Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisines, the favored spice has found its way into cuisines all over the world. It is extensively used in Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine.
Coriandrum sativum appears to be native to Europe and West Asia. It shows up on a 16th-century-bce shipping manifest written in ancient Greek and likewise in the Middle East and India at least from Vedic times. It has been cultivated for thousands of years in India, China, Egypt, and Central America. Confusingly, in the US, the leaves are commonly known as cilantro and the seeds as coriander. Outside the US, the leaves and stems are called coriander and the dried fruits are known as coriander seeds.
Coriander belongs to the Apiaceae family, which includes dill, fennel, anise, parsley, celery, Queen Anne’s lace, carrots and more. Its leaves are finely divided, resembling those of parsley—hence the name Chinese parsley. It is a herbaceous plant with bright green leaves and small white or pale-pink flowers formed in umbrella-like clusters that grows to a height of 32 inches. All parts of the plant are edible. Unlike parsley, the tender leaves are aromatic. The globular fruits are about a quarter inch in diameter, green in color when mature and unripe, yellow-brown when dried.
One can easily grow cilantro from seed or from seedlings bought from a nursery. Though indigenous to tropical countries, it grows happily outdoors anywhere the air temperature is above 60° F. and thrives best in sunny locations. Crush the mature fruits gently to release the seeds and then sow them outdoors directly in the soil or in containers on a sunny porch or balcony. One can also use kits available for growing herbs. During germination, which takes about a week, keep the soil moist but not soggy. After germination, the plant prefers a drier soil. The plant will produce an abundance of tender leaves and, if the temperature is high enough, will bolt to produce flowers and seeds. But don’t worry if you lack a green thumb or the inspiration to grow herbs; you can easily find cilantro in any grocery store.
Incorporated into one’s diet, Coriander is anti-hyperglycemic, that is, it decreases the glucose levels in the blood. This is especially helpful for those suffering from diabetes. In addition, coriander is touted for other pharmacological effects, such as anti-hyperlipidemic (lowers triglyceride and bad lipid levels), anti-proliferative (inhibits proliferation of cell growth) and hypotensive (lowers blood pressure to counteract hypertension). It is also a digestive stimulant, and the leaves are an excellent source of antioxidant flavonoids.
For an aromatic tea, soak coriander seeds in boiling water for a few minutes, and strain. This healthy brew is said to help to control blood sugar levels, cure food-borne bacterial infections, flu, sore throat, cold, etc. A blend of crushed cilantro leaves in buttermilk promotes digestion.
The entire plant is used for culinary purposes. The leaves with their citrus overtones are used extensively for flavoring stir-fried vegetables, soups, salads, salsa, etc. Indians use the leaves in making chutney, unleavened bread (parotas and chapatis) and crepes. People all over the world use coriander seed as a spice to flavor food and beverages. It is a common ingredient in Indian curry powder and a main component of South Indian sambhar and rasam. The seeds are used to flavor liqueurs in Russia and Scandinavia and as a flavoring agent in gin and certain kinds of European beer. Whole and ground seeds are used in baking, sausages, pickles, candies, sauces, soups, pastries, buns, cakes and other confectioneries. It may even be one of the ingredients in the secret formula for Coca-Cola. The leaves and seeds of this versatile herb add flavor, aroma and health benefits to our food in everyday cooking. ∏π