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by Eva Koveos

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Winter Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(4) page(s): 19

Can anyone deny the sweet pleasure of the unique and refreshing flavor of cilantro? If I had to guess, I would say no, but it has been said the world is divided into two groups--those who loathe this herb and those who love it. Personally, I fall into the latter category and look forward to my weekly visit to the local farmer's market just so that I can enjoy the pleasing fragrance the delicate greens impart, almost like a breath of fresh air. However, as much as I enjoy this annual, I have friends who are repulsed by it saying they do not like its 'soapy' flavor; now that is something I'll never understand.

If you've tasted Roast Duck stir-fried With Snow Peas, a popular Chinese dish or dunked your tortilla chips into a Chunky Salsa or a Guacamole Dip in your favorite Mexican restaurant, then you've probably experienced the intense, exotic flavor of coriander. I remember the first time I tried it in a Mexican restaurant. I couldn't place the flavor because I had never tasted anything like it. My friend stared at me like I was crazy, she was disgusted by its taste and wondered why I even wanted to know what it was.

This very friend is not the first person to hate its smell and flavor. Coriander has always had a notorious reputation because of its 'offensive' odor. After all, its name is derived from the Greek word koris which translates to 'bedbug,' hence suggesting an unpleasant smell. Only recently has cilantro gained some well-deserved popularity. I bet this is due to the mounting interest in Chinese, Caribbean, and Latin American cuisines.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) goes by many names. You may have heard it referred to as cilantro, culantro, even Chinese or Greek parsley. Culantro it is not, but cilantro is actually the name given to the bright green leaves and stem of the coriander plant; they resemble flat-leafed Italian parsley. Coriander and parsley are both from the family Umbilliferae. They look very similar but they definitely are not one and the same. Both have a delicate and lacy pretty foliage; however, they taste and smell quite differently. When in doubt, I pinch leaves and smell my fingers for the fresh, earthy scent to make certain that I have not picked parsley instead.

A major misconception is that coriander leaves can be substituted for the seeds. The latter appear in the plant's mature stages of growth. Don't make this mistake. They are very different in character and will drastically alter the flavor of the food you prepare. The seeds are usually used to flavor gin, the pale green liqueur called Chartreuse, and hot dogs; they are also very popular in pickling spice, breads, cookies and cakes.

The herb called coriander has one of the oldest of histories, dating back to 5000 BCE. It is mentioned in Sanskrit records and found on Egyptian papyri. Originally from the Mediterranean and further east, coriander made its way to the Americas in the 16th century via Spanish explorers who introduced it to the natives of Mexico. Since that time, Mexicans successfully incorporated it into their cuisine and with it, delighted taste buds everywhere. In China, information about yuen sai, as it is known, appeared around 200 BCE when it was eaten as a vegetable, believed to have calming properties. It was also used medicinally, as an antidote for stomach upset and to treat ptomaine poisoning.

A Chinese legend has it that the leaves bestow immortality placed in New Years' bath water. Coriander makes its culinary mark in the Chinese kitchen, as well, and can be found in a variety of dishes, particularly salads, soups and cold platters. Most people who use cilantro buy the herb fresh to use in their cooking. Dried leaves are available for those who prefer them, but personally, I don't recommend them. In experiments, I found that in the dried form, it is almost flavorless.

Coriander can be purchased whole, ground, or as an oil. Whichever you use, just remember that the different forms are not meant to substitute for each other in a recipe. If you never tasted fresh cilantro, be advised that it's definitely worth a try. Just avoid being heavy-handed the first time because there is disagreement over the taste. Add the leaves towards the end of cooking, the best flavor is produced at that time.

When buying cilantro, select green, fresh-looking leaves and avoid any that are yellow and wilted. To store, place the roots in water, cover with a plastic bag that has some small holes in it, and refrigerate.

Finding fresh cilantro shouldn't be a problem to locate due to its newfound popularity. Just do not forget that it is sold in Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese groceries, and it now graces the produce section of most supermarkets. No koris this, try this sativum and salivate!
Eva Koveos works for Good Housekeeping, a Hearst magazine. She has written other featured ingredient articles for Flavor and Fortune, and if you want to know about a food ingredient, just ask Eva.

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