When I was a child, my mother chopped cilantro leaves right before adding them to a hot dish of dhaal or sprinkled a handful of piney-scented leaves over a simmering curry before she served it. The clean, bright aroma wafted on waves of steam and set our mouths watering. My father, the grilling man, blended cilantro leaves and stems, onions, tomatoes, chili peppers, salt and sugar to create a savory, sweet and piquant chutney for the lamb tikkas central to our ritual summer barbecues.
So I love cilantro. But I have come across plenty of people who don’t. “Soapy,” says my sister-in-law, who has a strong aversion. She’s not far off. The cilantro aroma is apparently made up of aldehydes that are similar to substances found in soap. Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and a former cilantrophobe, recently told Harold McGee for an article in the New York Times that humans’ sense of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions. So if we taste something that our brain identifies as soap-like, the immediate reaction is “danger,” “stop,” or just “yuck.” But those genetic memory patterns can be reprogrammed by eating cilantro more frequently, thereby creating a new mental blueprint of tasty food experiences.
It might be worth the effort. The leaves, stems, seeds and roots of cilantro add not only a robust flavor to any dish but also provide valuable plant chemicals to protect and heal.
Origins: Botanists speculate that coriander’s origins — Coriandrum sativum, a member of the parsley family — lie in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. The leaf (called cilantro) and seed (called coriander), taste quite different, though neither is subtle in flavor.
Culinary homes: Today, culinary cultures beyond the Mediterranean employ this love-it-or-hate-it spice. South Asians roast and grind the warm, lemony seeds with a number of other fresh and dried spices. McGee explains in his book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” that when coriander seeds are ground, the brittle and fibrous husks make a good water absorber and thickener for sauces (think of the liquid portion of a curry sauce).
Thais use the entire coriander plant says David Thompson, author of “Thai Food” and the first chef to gain a Michelin star for a Thai restaurant in Europe. The leaves are added to salads and soups, the stems are simmered in stocks, and the roots are a common ingredient in sauces and curry pastes. The coriander root, adds Thompson, counters any strong or earthy tastes such as shrimp paste or freshwater fish. It can also mellow or counter raw garlic. He advises scraping the roots to remove the skin, and then soaking in water to dislodge any soil residues before pounding. Meanwhile in Latin America, Mexicans cut the leaves and mix them into guacamole or chilli piquin.
Healing traditions: Cooks and healers have roasted and ground striated, husk-covered coriander seeds or steeped the leaves to make healing potions for a few thousand years. According to Ayurvedic classifications, cilantro is bitter and astringent and is considered cooling and cleansing. It can effectively help balance the three dominant constitutions (vata, pitta, kapha) and is particularly beneficial for balancing pitta and kapha. Cilantro improves digestion and helps strengthen liver function. In Chinese medicine, cilantro is classified as warming, although the Chinese cook with it to counteract the heating effects of strongly spiced foods.
Research: This year, the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition noted that cilantro is a rich source of antioxidants, specifically the carotenoids. Also this year the journal Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry indicated the potential of coriander oil as a natural antimicrobial compound against C. jejuni in food — a pathogen that causes food-borne diseases worldwide. Another 2010 study in Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture reported that alcoholic extracts of coriander leaves and stems showed strong anti-inflammatory activity in a test tube model. Finally, in a review of the available animal and clinical trials where spices and their extracts were examined, The International Journal on Food, Science, and Nutrition reported that a limited number of studies noted that cilantro is helpful in reducing blood sugar, perhaps helping those with diabetes.
Cultivation: Coriander is a cool weather annual plant. According to Organic Gardening, the plant thrives in a sunny area with well-drained soil. The seeds should be sowed directly in the garden about ½-inch deep after the danger of frost has passed. After the seedlings appear, thin the plants every 4 inches. Pick the leaves/stems as needed.
Because the seeds ripen and scatter quickly, cut the plant as soon as the leaves and flowers turn brown. Tie it in bundles and hang upside down with a paper bag tied around the flower heads to catch the seeds as they dry and fall.
In the warmer climates, or in the peak of the summer heat, coriander bolts (goes to seed) quickly. The strong cilantro leaves and stems diminish in taste and can turn bitter as it produces flower and then seeds. To maintain a steady supply throughout the season, you can plant successive waves of cilantro, weekly or bimonthly.
Lentil Salad with Olive Oil and Egyptian Spices (Coriander Seeds)
Clifford A. Wright’s recipe has a pungent coriander flavor. It serves 6 and can be prepared in just 30 minutes.
- In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic. As soon as the garlic begins to sizzle, remove from the burner, add the cumin, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.
- Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on.
- Drain lentils and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss, and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.
Khurshid’s Cilantro Chutney With Tamarind and Pomegranate
My father’s chutney is great served as a condiment with grilled meats (chicken, beef, or lamb) or over pasta for a cool summer meal.
Yields 1 to 1½ cups.
- In a blender add cut tomatoes, onion, tamarind paste, pomegranate seeds and green chilies. Blend until you get a smooth, watery mixture.
- Add half the cilantro leaves and stems and blend. Add the other half of cilantro and blend. Add sugar and salt to taste. Blend again.
Sarah Khan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, founded the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.
Photo: Cliantro leaves. Credit: Sarah Khan