If you've ever attended a dinner party featuring ethnic cuisine, you've undoubtedly sampled coriander. For a small green plant, coriander - or Coriandum Sativum to call it by its scientific term - has made quite a name for itself. A member of the parsley family, both the plant and its fruit are featured extensively in Asian, Latin, and Indian cuisines. You'll find it enhancing the flavor of Chinese soups, Indian masalas, and Mexican salsas.
But is coriander a spice or a herb? Technically, the word coriander can be used to describe the entire plant: leaves, stems, seeds, and all. However, when speaking of coriander, most people are referring to the spice produced from the seeds of the plant. The leaves of the plant are commonly called cilantro, which comes from the Spanish word for coriander.
Actually, the change in names is quite appropriate, since the plant's leaves and the ripened seeds taste completely different. A little too different for many more delicate palates, unfortunately. Epicures attempting to capture cilantro's unique aroma have used words ranging from pungent to soapy. As for myself, I find it pleasantly musky, but I can see why some people argue that, like caviar, it's an acquired taste.
It's a different story for the seeds. Coriander is an extremely popular spice with a pleasing lemony flavor. Its aroma can often be detected in Asian curries; it is also used in European cooking.
A Bit of History
Little is known about the origins of the coriander plant, although it is generally thought to be native to the Mediterranean and parts of southwestern Europe. Experts believe its use dates back to at least 5,000 BC. References to coriander can be found in Sanskrit writings, and the seeds were placed in Egyptian tombs. In Plants of Love, Christian Reach states that ancient Egyptians and Greeks believed coriander had aphrodisiacal properties. Dioscorides, a Greek physician and author of several renowned books on the medicinal qualities of herbs, believed ingesting coriander spice could heighten a man's sexual potency.
On a different note, coriander even rates a mention in the Old Testament. In Exodus, chapter 16, verse 31, it says that: "And the house of Israel called the name there of Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey."
Cilantro has been used in Chinese cooking for hundreds of years. Like other ancient cultures, the Chinese valued cilantro for its medicinal and reputed aphrodisiacal qualities, as well as its distinctive flavor. In "Asian Ingredients", Ken Hom notes that cilantro is one of the few food herbs used in Chinese cooking.
More recently, coriander plants were flourishing in Massachussetts by the early 1600's, one of the first herbs grown by the American colonists. And seventeenth century Frenchmen used distilled coriander to make a type of liquor. Today, cilantro is cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries throughout the world.
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