One absolute favorite garnish in Indian cooking that is found across almost all regional cuisines of India is fresh coriander. More commonly referred to as Cilantro in America, also Chinese Parsley, Coriander is used both as a herb (fresh leaves) and a spice (seeds – whole & powdered).
In India, fresh coriander or ‘haraa dhaneea’ (literally Green Coriander), refers to the fresh green leaves while dhaneea refers to the seeds – both whole and in powdered form. The dried seeds form the base of many curries especially in Western and Southern India.
Cilantro or fresh Coriander closely resembles Italian Flat Leaf Parsley as they are from the same plant family. It is best used fresh as it doesn’t keep / freeze well. The whole seeds have a longer shelf life, and toasting them a little before use helps release the essential oils and brings out the flavor better. The powdered seeds lose their fragrance rapidly and are best ground fresh.
All parts of the coriander plant are used in cooking and flavoring – though it differs from region to region. The most common is the use of the fresh leaves as a garnish or a salad green. The stems and roots are used in Thai cooking to flavor curries and stews, while the seed in whole and powdered form finds its way into curries and breads. One Indian favorite is a green coriander chutney which is a combination of fresh coriander and mint leaves made into a kind of pesto sauce or chutney with fresh ginger, lime juice or raw mango for the sourness, green chillis for heat, salt and sugar to balance the flavors. The sourness sometimes comes from yogurt and the level of heat or sourness is really a function of how you like it!!
The spherical coriander seeds hold two disc like halves which are roasted and eaten as a snack and digestive in parts of India.
Some people find the smell of Coriander / Cilantro fresh and citrusy, earthy and nutty while some people find it totally offensive! In fact, the name coriander comes from the Greek word Koris which means ‘bug’. The name possibly came about because the unripe seeds of coriander have a distinctly buggy and offensive smell.
Cultivation of Coriander dates back to as early as 5,000 BC. It actually grows extensively in the wild across Southern Europe and Western Asia. Coriander finds its way into cuisines across the globe, significantly, Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Mexican. In Ancient Greece, it was used widely for its medicinal properties by the likes of Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine.
It’s a very rich source of Vitamin K, A & C and has been used in different parts of the world to help with different ailments like Bone health, digestion, diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol among others.
In Europe, coriander is associated with being anti-diabetic, while in India, it is big for its anti-inflammatory and digestive properties. Studies in the US indicate that coriander can actually help reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) deposits while raising the level of good cholesterol (HDL).