The herb of the year for 2017 is somewhat of a misnomer since it celebrates both the herb and the spice we get from coriandrum sativum, a plant in the family apiaceae. Apiacea includes flowering aromatic species such as cumin, dill and fennel. Of course, an herb comes from the leaf of the plant and a spice comes from its seed, flower, root or stem, anything other than the leaf.
The herb and spice from the coriandrum sativum are referred to variously depending on the part of the world and whether the herb or the spice is more central historically. In places where the spice is more central, the spice is known as coriander and the herb is known as coriander leaves. In places where the herb is more central, the herb is known as cilantro and the spice is known as cilantro seeds. In the US, maybe because we’re such individualists, they each get their own names: the herb, cilantro and the spice, coriander.In this article, I’ll just scratch the surface of what can be said about coriandrum sativum, in particular some tips for cultivation and its historical culinary uses. For more comprehensive information, go to the website of the International Herb Association where their booklet on cilantro and coriander is due out shortly.
Many members of CBHS enjoy cilantro as a culinary herb. We even have some members who are super fans and love what I call its grassy, fruity, citrus peel flavor. There is, however, an estimated 15% of the population, and at least one member of CBHS who will admit it, for whom cilantro tastes like soap. A famous member of cilantro avoiders was Julia Child, who said with humor that she would never cook with cilantro or knowingly eat food with cilantro, and if she found it in a dish she would “pick it out and throw it on the floor”. Of interest is that there may be some genetic basis for these strong reactions.In 2002, the Monell Chemical Senses Center conducted a twin study which found that 80% of identical twins shared a like or dislike for cilantro whereas only 42% of fraternal twins agreed. A consumer genetics firm analyzed the genomes of 30,000 subjects asking whether they liked cilantro and what it tasted like. Those who said cilantro tasted like soap had similarities in a cluster of smell detector genes, in particular that related to the smell of an aldehyde chemical which is a byproduct of soap making.
For the rest of us who like cilantro and might want to plant coriandrum sativum this spring, we know the cilantro is a cool season herb which can be planted before the last spring frost for late spring harvest and again in late summer for fall harvest. The soil should be at least 50 degrees for seeds to germinate. Seedlings will emerge in about 2 to 3 weeks. Some people have found that scarifying cilantro seeds with sandpaper makes them germinate faster. (I bought some sandpaper to try this and managed to turn the seeds into powder. Based on this experience, my recommendation is to use a fine grade of sandpaper). In terms of spacing, one conventional recommendation is to thin so that the plants will be at least 6 inches apart to provide adequate air circulation to avoid leaf spotting. But there are those gardeners who use a lot of cilantro, don’t worry about overseeding, and happily enjoy containers overflowing with plants for frequent harvesting. So I guess it’s a matter of gardening style.
Your cilantro will want to run to seed as early as 6 weeks in moderate temperatures. The plant will develop a thick stem, produce pale lavender flowers and feathery tasteless leaves. At that time, you can still look for flavorful leaves growing at the base of the plant. To address this problem of bolting, you can use bolt resistant seeds, such as SloBolt Cilantro. Maintain adequate irrigation since bolting occurs when the plant experiences drought stress. Don’t over-fertilize because over-fertilization can irritate roots and produce bolting. You can mulch the plant in hot weather to keep the roots cool and delay its going to seed.
Succession planting is another strategy for dealing with your cilantro bolting. Start first plants when conditions are right. Then establish new plants maybe every 4 weeks in moderate temperature and more frequently in hotter months. This way when one plant begins to bolt, another plant is coming into use.
Cilantro in Cooking
When it comes to cooking with cilantro, the most significant thing to say is that its flavor is not heat stable, so it’s usually added to cold preparations or after cooking. Cilantro is most strongly associated with food in Mexico and Latin America, the Caribbean, Vietnam and Thailand. Their classic preparations with cilantro reflect its lack of heat stability.
In Latin cuisine, cilantro is used in ceviche and guacamoles. It’s a component of many cold sauces and condiments. Aji sauce used throughout South American is made of cilantro, onion, chilies and vinegar. It is said that the characteristic aroma of Puerto Rican cooking is produced during the preparation of Recaito sauce, made of cilantro, onions, pepper and garlic.
The Hispanic Market in Easton sells jars of various prepared sauces with cilantro as well as large bunches of fresh cilantro. It also sells a Knorr product called Cilantro Cubes for crumbling into cold dishes, which is supposed to deal with the problem of cilantro not lasting. I have found that the method of separating large bunches of fresh cilantro into smaller bunches and rolling them successively in a single large sheet of paper towel to be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator will keep cilantro well for about 3 weeks.
Cilantro is an ever present flavor in Vietnamese cooking. It’s an important flavor in a favorite dish of mine, cold chicken salad in a fish sauce dressing. Of course, it’s a garnish for their famed noodle soup, Pho and a garnish for grilled meat dishes over vermicelli or rice. Cilantro is a component of Vietnamese fresh spring rolls.In Thai cuisine, cilantro is in marinades for grilled pork and chicken, and a garnish for many other dishes. Tom Kha, a coconut soup, would not be the same without cilantro.
Two Related Tropical Species
Besides cilantro from coriandrum sativum, the leaves of two related tropical species which are also used. These are eryngium foetidum (called long cilantro or cilantro) used in Latin American and Caribbean cuisines, and polygonum odoratum (called Vietnamese coriander) used in Vietnamese and Thai cuisines. The flavor of Culantro and Vietnamese coriander is more intense so quantifies have to be adjusted up when using cilantro from coriandrum sativum.
Let’s go back to the garden and your coriandrum sativum, where after about 6 weeks it starts going to seed, producing flowers, feathery leaves and then small green globular fruit. The plant will eventually self-dehydrate and the fruits will ultimately dry to brown and can be harvested as coriander.
In Eurocentric history, we learned about the so-called exotic spice trade and European colonial wars of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries for control of spices from the Spice Islands in Indonesia and the Malabar coast of western India.
This spice trade involved products of tropical and subtropical plants producing black pepper, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, and cloves. This had nothing to do with coriander. Coriander was naturally occurring in southern Europe, was not exotic and not expensive. Even though coriander was widely available in Europe, the panache of using spices in cooking did have a spillover effect boosting its popularity.We know about early uses of coriander from archeological finds. A pint of coriander seeds was found in the tomb of Tutankhamum dating from 1300 BC. A 1st century BC Roman encampment in the Ruhr Valley was found to have coriander seeds and black pepper in its kitchen scrap heap.
Coriander in Cooking and Beer Making
In cooking, coriander is often toasted and ground into powder or used whole in pickling. It is the first ingredient in what we buy as generic curry powder. Coriander is known for its use in the more temperate regions of India. It is an essential part of North Indian garam masala which is made from coriander, cumin and bay leaf. North Indian garam masala shouldn’t be confused with South Indian garam masala which is made from cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and fennel. Coriander is also a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine.
A clay tablet dating from 300 BC records the use of coriander to flavor beer and it is used to flavor certain styles of beer to this day. To understand why coriander has been used in this way, first a brief primer on beer making:
Beer is made from four ingredients: grain (usually barley), water, herbs/spices, and yeast. Beer is made in four steps. First, the grain is malted (germinated in water, dried and cracked). Second, the malted grain is mashed (steeped in hot water, releasing the grain sugars, producing a sticky sweet liquid). Third, the liquid is strained, herbs/spices are added and the liquid is boiled. Fourth, the liquid is strained and yeast is added, activating fermentation, producing alcohol and carbonation.
The purpose of step three (adding herbs/spices) is to provide a bitterness to balance the sweetness of the grain sugars released in the mashing process. Here is where the role of coriander in beer brewing comes in. Before hops became popular to provide this bitterness, coriander was used.Coriander can still be found today in brewing the style of beer called Belgian Witbiers or Belgian Whites. Belgian Witbiers available in our area are Hoegarden, Blue Moon and Alagash White. To appreciate the coriander flavor of Witbiers, do a taste test (I suggest using Hoegarden) and compare it with the flavor of a Lager beer (maybe Sam Adams) in which the flavor of hops predominates. Not only will this taste test add to your appreciation of coriandrum sativum, but it will be a fitting introduction to our up-coming Herb of the Year for 2018: Hops.
2017 Herb of the Year
Chesapeake Bay Herb Society