Coriander and Cilantro
I know, I know. All spices are equal, but you’ll never convince me that coriander is not more equal than the others. Here’s why: coriander seeds, stem, root, leaves – every part of the plant is not only edible, but is used in cuisine. In India, coriander leaves are used, in addition to the seeds; in Thailand, the stem, root and leaves all go into the cooking pot, for a fragrant note. There’s more. All other spices are used either whole or powdered, but coriander seeds have distinct profiles when powdered, broken open or coarsely crushed. A hobby cook I know, who is also a spice dealer, has three jars of variously textured coriander on his spice rack, and he uses one or the other, based on the result he seeks.
Added to that, it is possible to a trained eye, to be able to identify the provenance of a sample of whole coriander seeds with a reasonable degree of accuracy. The largest seeds I have ever seen was in the hallowed food hall of Harrod’s, London. A small bottle, probably containing 50 grams, and priced outrageously high, to my Indian sensibilities, anyway, had enormous seeds of a very pale colour. The label said that they were from Morocco, though my own travels through Morocco did not yield anything nearly as spectacular.
Ayurveda, which determines the therapeutic value of every single ingredient that we ingest, decrees that coriander is cooling to the system. It is probably why every mutton preparation in that bastion of meat cookery – Lucknow – uses large quantities of coriander seed, finely powdered. No qorma, saalan or chicken masala is without a generous tablespoon or three of this most discreet spice. On the other hand, cumin barely makes an appearance in one or two of Lucknow’s meat preparations.
Contrast that with, say, Gujarat where coriander and cumin are spoken of in the same breadth: both spices are broiled, then ground and bottled like two hearts that beat as one. They’re even called dhano-jeero! It is the same in Punjab and Delhi, which means that coriander lies very much under the radar, allowing the more assertive zeera to overshadow it.
I never tire of wandering through spice markets, the better to inspect sacks of coriander seed. No two sacks ever have the exact shape, size or colour. Some are darker; others lighter. Some are greenish hued while others are golden. Indori coriander, the pride of India’s entire crop is not round and bead-like, but elongated, large and pale.
Allow yourself to get closer to this all-pervasive spice that is used unthinkingly and you will even be able to use it as a secret ingredient in desserts.