You Say Cilantro, I Say Coriander?

Close-up of coriander leaves on table
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If you've ever attended a dinner party featuring ethnic cuisine, you've undoubtedly sampled coriander. For a small green plant, coriander -- or Coriandrum 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 enhances the flavor of Chinese soups, Indian masalas, and Mexican salsas.

Is coriander a spice or a herb? Technically, the word coriander can be used to describe the entire plant: leaves, stems, seeds, and all. 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.

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 thereof 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 it's 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 Massachusetts 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.Cilantro is a herb used worldwide. While often referred to as Chinese parsley in Asian cookbooks (Mexican parsley is another common nickname), cilantro has a stronger, more distinct flavor than parsley.

Cilantro features prominently in Chinese cooking. Cilantro leaves and stems are frequently used to garnish Chinese salads, or chopped up and mixed in dressings and sauces. Cilantro is used in other Southeast Asian cuisines as well. For example, cilantro roots make a pungent addition to Thai curries.

Although cilantro comes from the coriander plant, the spice doesn't play a large role in Chinese cuisine. In Chinese cookbooks, you may find coriander described as a plant somewhat similar to parsley, with no mention made of the spice at all. And it is common to find recipes calling for fresh coriander, meaning cilantro leaves. While it would be inaccurate to say Chinese cooks never use coriander, it plays a greater role in Indian and Indonesian cuisines. In addition, coriander seeds impart a lemony flavor to many Thai dishes.

When purchasing cilantro (also called Chinese parsley), check for leaves that have a bright green color with no yellow spots, and no evidence of wilting. Fresh cilantro doesn't last long, and you'll need to store it in the refrigerator.

One method is to put the cilantro in an air-filled, securely closed plastic bag in the vegetable crisper section of your refrigerator.

If you are using coriander seeds, check to see if they need to be washed before storage. The seeds can be dried in the sun or in the oven at a low temperature. Another tip is to dry roast the seeds before grinding them, as this helps bring out their unique fragrance.

Gardening buffs might want to consider growing their own coriander plants. A hardy annual that thrives in loamy soil in direct sunlight, coriander should be planted at the same time that you would plant parsley in your particular area.