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Coriander in the Chinese Spice Cupboard

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Spring Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(1) page(s): 33, 34, and 38

The Chinese cupboard has many plants used to flavor food and medicine, even more to eat as fruits or vegetables. It is interesting that many are used often, some only rarely. Even more fascinating is that some are used only in one form, i.e. the leaf, and only when fresh. Others are used in many ways and these uses include leaves, seeds, roots, stems, and flowers. They might be used fresh and whole, dried and ground, roasted, or whatever. No matter the form or frequency, some of them are tried and touted, others always honored, still others hardly of interest.

Coriander is one of the touted ones. Early Chinese consumed one part of this plant to assure immortality starting probably in the 4th century BCE. Others dispute that date. No matter, everyone agrees that this plant was and sometimes still is used for longevity. Who would not want an extended life? But does one extend it by use of its seeds, leaves, stems, or roots? Are they to be consumed fresh or dried? Is it alone or in combination with other items? Like the date and other things about this relative to carrots and parsley, literature and locals are not consistent in their thoughts about coriander. The majority say it is the seed, a few indicate no, it is the roots.

As a food, liking coriander is another question. Some people adore it, others abhors this super-flavored-food. Perhaps you are one among the many who think its leaves taste like soap. Maybe you join those who call the flavor in the mouth akin to pine leaves. What is your opinion of its aroma? Do you join the few who deem that similar to bedbugs? Are you one of the positive people who call it earthy? Whatever anyone’s point of view, most agree that liking the taste or smell of coriander needs to be acquired. And for those that have, they clearly are members of the adoring group.

This plant, often mislabeled as Chinese parsley, is a member of the Umbelliferae botanical family, specifically known as Coriandrum sativum. Before China knew about and used hot peppers, circa the 16th or 17th century, they used fresh coriander roots as a source of piquancy. They not only knew about the root, but they liked and used it specifically for that purpose, and used it often. They also used both roots and leaves as vegetables, and they cooked with coriander seeds and stems. And, let not anyone forget another primary use, that was in traditional Chinese medicine.

Where coriander came from is yet another question that turns up assorted answers. Most agree its origins were in the Middle East. Some broaden that to around the Mediterranean. One source speaks of its presence in Egyptian tombs about 1100 BCE. Another reminds that it was mentioned in the Bible, specifically in Exodus. There, the seed is compared to manna from heaven. Another early reference says that circa 5000 BCE, this food appeared in Sanskrit writings, in India. There it was mentioned as a grain. Yet another source, disputing the Indian origin, agrees it was there, but claims the name they give for coriander had Persian origins.

Never mind where it came from. It got to China as early as the Han Dynasty, and it quickly became popular. We know that because it was soon considered one of the five vegetables, all with strong aromas, forbidden to Taoist monks and those who practiced geomancy. Today, Chinese are using this hardy odoriferous annual, which sometimes does return for a second year, in many culinary and medicinal ways. They readily admit it an ancient imported food then called hu sui. The hu indicates its foreign nature. Now, in general it is called yan sui, the leaves more commonly known as xiang cai. Wherever its origins, it is used all over China, and all over the world. Spanish speaking countries call it cilantro, and that name is as worldly as is coriander itself.

On the culinary front, the leaves are put in or on fish, and are popular when minced and mixed into the stuffings such as in dumplings. They are liked in many foods because coriander leaves heighten flavor. They can be found in many Chinese soups. Good cooks put stems in early, leaves added close to serving time, whenever possible.

Coriander seeds can be spicy when young and freshly dried. They are preferred mixed with heavy meats. Older seeds are sweeter and with reduced aroma. They are popular in bakery-type dishes. Pickled foods, particularly vegetables, are made with coriander seeds, whole or ground. Some only add them to heavy foods because they say they make them more digestible.

In traditional Chinese medicine, coriander is known to be pungent, its nature warm, and its affinity for lungs and spleen. It is recommended to disperse cold feelings and promote sweating. As a decoction, it is used to clear a rash, first increasing and later helping to heal the eruptions.

The seeds are said to help regulate the flow of qi. They strengthen the stomach when mixed with fennel seeds, cassia, and other items. Using them for this, they go by the name of ‘cure three’ because they soak them three items in rice wine for three days, take them three times a day, and do so for three days. Coriander is also used as an antidote for ptomaine poising. They say it relieves nausea, treats migraines, reduces joint pain, and is effective as a sedative. If it does all of those, who would not adore them?

While Chinese medicinal uses are many, so are those culinary, but not in the same way throughout China. In the south, especially in and near Macao, there is much use of ground seeds in curry-type mixtures. In the northwest, seeds and leaves are put into many main dishes. In Sichuan and Hunan, the leaves are used as a flavoring component. This is the only fresh herb in common usage in these two provinces.

Popular uses in Sichuan are in soups and meat dishes. In Suzhou, coriander leaves are cooked with fish. In Guangzhou, they are prepared with duck and goose. These are but a few of the ways the leaves are used. The seeds have yet other uses. A few recipes follow to show the versatility of this ancient longevity food. While we can not attest to its effectiveness in anyone’s longevity, we do know that these recipes will lengthen guests enjoyment at your table.
Sichuan Steamed Beef
1 pound flank steak, cit into very thin strips
1 Tablespoon (or more) chili paste with garlic
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy
4 Tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 scallions, white parts minced, green part cut into half inch pieces
1 cup glutinous rice flour
2 Tablespoons rice wine
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
1/4 cup chicken broth
4 Tablespoons minced coriander leaves
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1. Mix flank steak strips with chili sauce, both soy sauces, ginger, garlic, minced whites of the scallions. Let stand twenty minutes, then drain and reserve the liquid.
2. Fry rice flour in a hot dry pan until it turns a light tan. Remove from the pan and mix with coriander seed and the Sichuan pepper.
3. Mix meat and the rice flour mixture, add chicken broth and coriander leaves and put into a heat-proof bowl.
4. Steam this over rapidly boiling water for one hour, turn bowl onto a deep plate, pour sesame oil over this and serve.
Steamed Carp
1 two pound whole carp, scaled and gutted
1/2 cup rice or sweet potato flour
1 cup coriander leaves, half minced fine, the rest coarsely chopped
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1. Rinse fish in tepid water, then dry it, and coat it generously with the selected flour, then put it on an oiled plate.
2. Steam the fish over rapidly boiling water for fifteen minutes.
3. Bring one-quarter cup water to the boil, add drippings from the fish, both soy sauces, and the wine, salt, and sugar. Bring to the boil then immediately reduce the heat, and add the minced coriander. Simmer for two minutes, then pour this over the fish, scatter the rest if the coriander on it, and serve.
Delicious Devilish Meat
1/2 pound well-streaked beef
2 Tablespoons water chestnut flour
2 Tablespoons mushroom soy
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 pound hot red and green peppers
1 onion, peeled and cut in wedges
2 yaotiou (Chinese fried crullers), cut into half inch slices
6 baby corn, cut into inch-long pieces
1 Tablespoon chicken or shrimp bouillon powder
2 Tablespoons shrimp or oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 cup minced coriander leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1. Mix meat with water chestnut flour and mushroom soy and let stand for twenty minutes.
2. Heat wok, add the oil and the meat mixture and fry for one minute. Remove with a slotted spoon, the meat will still be pink, and put it in a bowl.
3. Add peppers, onion pieces, the yaotiao, baby corn, and toss for half a minute, then add bouillon powder, half cup of boiled hot water, and the oyster sauce. When it returns to the boil, return the meat and any juices in its bowl. Bring to the boil, add the sesame oil, coriander leaves, and the ground pepper, stir-fry for one minute and then serve.
Vegetarian Curry
1/2 pound imitation lamb or beef cubes, soaked for half hour in tepid water
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1/2 pound peeled potatoes, cut into half inch pieces, and boiled for two minutes, then drained
2 green tomatoes, cut into half-inch wedges
4 chili peppers
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon smashed whole coriander pieces
1 teaspoon ground fennel
1/4 teaspoon whole fennel
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon whole cumin
3 whole star anise
1 quill cinnamon, about two inches long
2 Tablespoons chili paste with garlic
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1. Heat wok, add oil, and fry vegetarian meat cubes until almost golden brown, then add potatoes and fry another minute.
2. Add one cup of water and simmer for ten minutes. Add all the remaining ingredients and simmer five minutes longer, then serve.
Note: Many people like this dish served on thin cellophane noodles; a one ounce package, deep-fried in half-cup oil for half-minute or less turning them quickly when they greatly expand (that is in about ten seconds). At that point, immediately remove and drain well. This can be done early in the day and set aside.
Fish Congee
1 cup glutinous rice, soaked for one hour
2 dried scallops, soaked for one hour in half-cup of tepid water, drained, and shredded by hand
2 Tablespoons chicken or shrimp bouillon powder
1/4 cup salted fish, rinsed, boned, cut up, then fried for one minute
1/4 pound chopped or ground pork
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup mixed finely minced ginger and coriander leaves
1. Put drained rice and drained scallop pieces into a pot with two quarts of water and bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for an hour. Then remove from the heat and allow to sit for an hour.
2. While that cooks, mix bouillon powder, fried fish, pork, cornstarch, and ginger coriander mix and make these into small balls.
3. Bring two quarts of water to the boil and simmer these meat balls for three or four minutes, then drain.
4. Reheat the rice mixture after it sits or when ready to serve it, when it boils, turn off the heat, add the meat balls, and serve.

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