If you’re visiting for the first time, this column explores the nature, history, medicinal and culinary uses of herbs in cuisine in general, and in Italian recipes. If you’re a regular, welcome back to The Herb Garden! Today we investigate coriander, which is also known as cilantro.
The name variations of this aromatic herb greatly depend on where you’re from. The Latin name for the herb is Coriandrum sativum from the Ancient Greek word koriannon. The word “cilantro” is the Spanish translation, and in the American continent this is what the herb goes by. In the United States however, the seeds are referred to as “coriander.” I have also sometimes heard it called Chinese or Mexican parsley. In Indian cuisine, coriander is extremely popular, but it goes by a completely different name: dhania.
Like parsley, coriander/cilantro is a member of the carrot family. In the same Apiales order are plants like anise, caraway, carrot, celery, chervil, cumin, dill, fennel, hemlock, lovage – to mention just a few. Images of coriander/cilantro were found in the Neolithic Nahal Hemar Cave in Israel, which may be the oldest archaeological find of the herb. There’s evidence that it was cultivated in Greece since at least the second millennium BC. The plant was brought to colonial North America in 1670, and was one of the first spices cultivated by early settlers. Since then coriander/cilantro has taken on a prominent role in Latin American cuisine.
The essential oil extracted from coriander seeds is used in various herbal remedies and dietary supplements. The leaves are rich in vitamin A (maintains kidney function as well as retina function) and vitamin K, which helps blood to coagulate.
Despite the fact that seeds generally contain lower levels of vitamin, they do provide significant amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, selenium, iron, magnesium and manganese. Coriander seeds are rich in vitamin C unlike other dry spices. Reputed health benefits of coriander/cilantro further include controlling blood sugar and the production of free radicals; the essential oils boast potent antimicrobial properties, effective for killing salmonella and other bacteria. Coriander seeds are furthermore used in the tobacco and perfumery manufacturing industry.
One of the most peculiar aspects connected to this herb is that most people either love it or hate it. Experts maintain that the reason for this love vs. hate response is contained in a gene. We are genetically predisposed to loving or hating it, so for some people fresh coriander/cilantro has a pleasant lemony or lime-like flavor, while others consider it rank and soapy.
The two different parts of the same plant are both used in the kitchen. Coarsely chopped fresh coriander/cilantro leaves are widely used in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking, combined with chili peppers and added to salsa and guacamole, and other dishes. Coriander seeds add punch to sauces and pickling jars, curries and stews. Coriander/cilantro is used to flavor Danish pastries and butter cookies, and is also one of the botanicals used in spirits like gin, vermouth and other liqueurs. Did you know coriander is used in brewing certain styles of beer, particularly Witbier?
What many don’t know is that ancient Romans used coriander leaves and seeds widely in their elaborate and sophisticated cuisine. Coriander might not be part of modern Italian cookery, but it was instead common during the days of the Roman Empire. Spices, most of which were brought from the East at great expense, meant status, and the upper classes used them with profuse abandon.
Ancient Roman gastronomes often mentioned coriander in their recipes. The one below is a refreshing 1st Century salad described by Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, an important writer on agriculture of the Roman empire, in his de re Rustica.
Addito in mortarium satureiam, mentam, rutam, coriandrum, apium, porrum sectivum, aut si non erit viridem cepam, folia latucae, folia erucae, thymum viride, vel nepetam, tum etiam viride puleium, et caseum recentem et salsum: ea omnia partier conterito, acetique piperati exiguum, permisceto. Hanc mixturam cum in catillo composurris, oleum superfundito.
Put salt in the mortar with mint, rue, coriander, parsley, sliced leek, or, if it is not available, onion, lettuce and rocket leaves, green thyme, or catmint. Also pennyroyal and salted fresh cheese. This is all crushed together. Stir in a little peppered vinegar. Put this mixture on a plate and pour olive oil over it.
–– Columella, “de re Rustica”
Aliter lenticulam: coquis. Cum despumaverit porrum et coriandrum viride supermittis. (Teres) coriandri semen, puleium, laseris radicem, semen mentae et rutae, suffundis acetum, adicies mel, liquamine, aceto, defrito temperabis, adicies oleum, agitabis, si quid opus fuerit, mittis. Amulo obligas, insuper oleum viride mittis, piper aspargis et inferes.
Another lentil recipe. Boil them. When they have foamed, add leeks and green coriander. [Crush] coriander seed, pennyroyal, laser root, mint seed and rue seed. Moisten with vinegar, add honey, garum, sweet wine mix, mix in a little grape must, add oil and stir. Add extra as required. Bind with starch, drizzle with green oil and sprinkle with pepper. Serve.
–– Apicius, “de re Coquinaria”
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Last image © Epicurious
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.