Coriander seed is the subtle spice you didn’t know your dishes were missing

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Coriander seeds. Image by PDPics from PixabayCoriander seeds. Image by PDPics from PixabayAn excerpt from my new e-book "Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa"
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Coriander is one of the most versatile herbs as all parts of the plant – roots, stems, leaves and seeds can be used in cooking.

The aromatic seeds of this plant are called “coriander” and the leaves are known as “cilantro” or ‘dhanya.” Fresh cilantro leaves have a bold and assertive flavour but the seeds are mellow and subtle.

Coriander seed is the subtle spice you didn’t know your dishes were missing, and in the world of spices it is more like a back-up singer than the star of the show. Its subtle sweet-and-sour flavour profile lends itself to both sweet and savoury dishes, and just like the backup singer rounds out the diva’s vocals, coriander, together with more centre-stage spices, rounds off their strong flavours to create more interesting and intricate seasoning blends. If you’ve ever sniffed from a jar of garam masala or eaten a friend’s homemade pickles, you’ve likely come in contact with coriander seed, even though you may not recognize it right off the bat. Its earthy flavour works well in combination with other spices, particularly cumin. This earthy seasoning may be less assertive than most others found on the spice rack, but there’s no question it adds a certain ‘something’ to a dish.

This slender, sparsely branched annual herb about 40 to 60cm tall with finely cut leaves and small flattened heads of mauve-white flowers in summer is cultivated by millions of people around the world, who rely on the fresh zip of cilantro leaves, and although the plant looks very similar to flat leaf parsley and the two can easily be confused, however, once you smell fresh coriander leaves there’s no mistaking their distinctive lemony-ginger aroma. Cilantro is an irreplaceable ingredient in Chinese, Indian, Southeast Asian, Mexican and other Latin American foods. If used correctly fresh cilantro serves as a foil for more assertive chillies, garlic, onions, and other herbs and spices used in these cuisines. However, if used incorrectly, cilantro can overwhelm a dish, even leaving a disagreeable, soapy aftertaste, which is probably why some people find it disagreeable.

Coriander leaves. Image by ReStyled Living from PixabayCoriander leaves. Image by ReStyled Living from PixabayCoriander grows wild in south-east Europe and the Middle East, and its history crosses several continents and a number of centuries, with historical ties to the Ancient Greeks, the Renaissance and the Spanish Conquistadors. In fact, coriander has been cultivated for its culinary and medicinal uses for over 3000 years.

It was the unpleasant smell of coriander that led to its use as a medicine, as the ancients believed that anything with such a strong and unpleasant odour must surely possess powerful curative and/or preventive attributes. Unfortunately its strong smell also earned coriander its name, which is believed to be derived from the Greek word “koros” which means insect, or the Greek word “koriannon”, meaning bug. Its specific Latin name “sativum” is used to designate certain seed-grown domestic crops. Taken together, the full scientific name calls coriander “the cultivated buggy-smelling plant!”

Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physician who lived during Greece’s Classical period, and is traditionally regarded as the father of medicine, recommended the use of coriander medicinally. Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, mentioned that the highest quality coriander to be found in Italy was that which was grown in Egypt. Coriander seeds certainly appear to have been quite prized by the Egyptians as they have been found in tombs of the 21st dynasty.

Dried traces of cilantro were found in a cave in Israel that dated to around 6000 BC, and we know that the ancient Israelites used coriander in their cooking, with the Book of Numbers comparing coriander with manna. Around 202BC the herb reached China, where it was used medicinally, and it has also been cultivated in India for thousands of years.

Coriander was brought to northern Europe by the Romans, who combined it with cumin and vinegar to rub into meat, fowl and fish as a preservative. Today we know that the plant does contain chemicals that help foods stay fresher for longer. It is said that the Late Bronze Age invaders, who used coriander to flavour their barley gruel, brought it to Britain.

In Europe, during the medieval and Renaissance periods of the 14th and 15th centuries, coriander was considered to be an aphrodisiac, and added to love potions. Strangely enough, coriander seeds can have a narcotic effect when consumed in quantity which is perhaps how it became to be known as ‘dizzycorn’.

The first American settlers carried the seeds to the New World, where it became naturalized in many places; and the Spanish conquistadors introduced coriander to Mexico and Peru where it soon became an indispensable companion to the native chilli.

Health Benefits:

Coriander seeds and leaves are rich with an unusual array of healing phytonutrients and antioxidants, making them useful in treating many health issues, too many to mention here.

A study published in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition showed that basil and coriander contained the highest levels of the carotenoids beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, all known for their antioxidant properties. As antioxidants, dietary carotenoids can decrease the risk of numerous conditions, including several cancers and eye disease.

Coriander is one of the richest herbal sources for vitamin K, which plays a role in maintaining healthy bone structure. It’s also known to help people with Alzheimer’s disease by limiting neuronal damage in the brain. Coriander also provides high amounts of calcium, is high in potassium, and because it is also rich in manganese and iron, is considered an excellent blood builder which helps to prevent anaemia.

Because it is a good source of dietary fibre which aids digestion, coriander relieves intestinal gas and protects against urinary tract infections. Its anti-inflammatory properties may alleviate symptoms of arthritis; and the disinfectant, detoxifying, antiseptic, antifungal, and antioxidant properties of coriander are ideal for clearing skin disorders such as eczema, dryness and fungal infections.

In the Kitchen:

Italian parsley is often recommended as a substitute for cilantro leaves in recipes, although the effect is not the same at all. This spice has a unique aroma and complex flavour which falls somewhere between sweet and spicy. Young cilantro leaves are picked when the plants are about 12cm tall; and the seeds are dried and used whole, or ground to make coriander spice, which is used to flavour both sweet and savoury dishes: liqueurs, sweetmeats, stews, stir fries, sauces, dips, pickles, marinades and especially curries. The leaves and seeds both go well with beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish and shellfish. As heat diminishes the flavour of coriander leaves, they are most often used raw or added to the dish immediately before serving. Coriander seed is also often used in apple pies, cakes, biscuits and marmalade.

Coriander and cilantro are common in South Asian, Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Caucasian, Central Asian, Mediterranean, Tex-Mex, Latin American, Brazilian, Portuguese, Chinese, African and Scandinavian cuisine.

The roots have a lovely nutty taste, and in Thailand they are crushed with garlic and used as flavouring. In Indonesia coriander is a common seasoning for tempeh recipes. Tempeh is a traditional soy product which is made by a controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form, similar to a very firm vegetarian burger patty.

Coriander seed is one of the three main components of curry mixes, along with cumin and turmeric. Freshly chopped coriander leaves are used in salads and as a garnish for many Indian dishes such as chutney, curry and dal. Dal is an Indian dish made of simmered and usually pureed and spiced legumes, especially lentils, which have been split.

Coriander is also used in Mexican cooking, and the fresh leaves are indispensable in salsas and guacamole. They also add zest to pinto bean stews, Spanish-style tomato sauces for enchiladas, tacos, and corn dishes such as corn-stuffed peppers.

Coriander seeds can be dried and stored for long periods, but because the leaves spoil quickly when removed from the plant, and lose much of their aroma when dried or frozen, it is best to use them fresh.

Companion Planting:

Not only is coriander great to have in the kitchen, but also in the garden. In fact, the word "coriandrum" is derived from the Greek work 'koris' which means insect; and due to its pungent smell it was probably one of the first natural insecticides used by man. Coriander grows well near roses and is essential in the vegetable garden; growing well close to maize, potatoes, radish, spinach, summer squashes and tomatoes. In the herb garden, plant it near to dill, anise and chervil.

Cultivation and Harvesting:

Coriander grows easily and quickly throughout South Africa as a summer annual, as long as it can be watered regularly during dry spells, and is planted in full sun. In very hot regions the plants may bolt and will do better in light shade. Because coriander seedlings do not transplant well it is best to sow the seeds directly where they are to grow. Sow only when all danger of frost is over because coriander crops will fail if they suffer a cold snap, especially a cold and wet period in early summer.

Coriander performs best on well-drained loam and sandy-loam soil, but will grow in most well-drained garden soils which have been lightly composted and deeply dug over. Cover the seeds with 5cm of soil and thin the seedlings out to about 30cm apart. Germination should take about 7 to 10 days. Water regularly until the young plants are established, but once established they require little water as the plants do not perform well in damp conditions. It is very important to keep coriander beds free of weeds, especially when the plants are small, as weeds compete with the young plants for water and nutrition. Protect the plants from strong wind and remove any flowering stems to encourage leaf growth.

To grow cilantro easily, sow seeds into deep seedling trays and harvest when the plants are about 12cm tall. Coriander grows fast and goes to seed quickly, so successive sowing is best for continual harvesting. At the end of summer, allow the plants to set seed to collect and store for next season.

The leaves are not good for drying but can be frozen fresh if wrapped in cling foil, or they can be frozen in ice cubes. Harvest the seeds when they turn from green to light brown and hang them in a dry, airy place until they are completely dry. If stored in a cool, dark place, they will maintain their flavour for a long time.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Although coriander is a great insect repellent and rarely suffers from pests, if the plant is stressed, it may succumb to aphids. Also, if the weather is very moist and humid it may also suffer from powdery mildews.

Caution:

There have been very few dangers associated with coriander, but as with almost any food, there is some danger of allergic reaction to it, and in some cases, it can be irritating to the skin. One of the more unusual side effects is that some patients complain of sunlight sensitivity, and that excessive coriander intake makes them more susceptible to sunburn.

Pregnant women should not take coriander until more established research is done, although some women have claimed that it increases their production of breast milk flow. It is always best to be safe, so speak with a doctor before adding coriander to your diet, and pay attention to the response your body has!