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Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

posted on: Apr 1, 2020

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

No one who has tasted fresh coriander, one of the oldest condiments known to man and today the most widely consumed fresh herb, will doubt that it will inspire some to ecstasy.  However, for others it is an offensive herb. Strange as it may seem, there are some who despise its taste and abhor its smell. On the other hand, the vast majority who use it in their cuisine are addicted to its very name.

I vividly remember my first experience when I was served a stew cooked with fresh coriander leaves.  A family friend who had recently arrived from the Middle East prepared the dish. That day my culinary experience was to be traumatic.  I went into raptures after the meal just thinking about the delicious taste of this savory herb. From that first taste over half a century ago, I have become a fanatical advocate of that exquisite parsley-like plant.

Coriander, also known as Chinese, Mexican, Spanish or Thai parsley, cilantro, and kuzbara, is thought to be the first herb utilized by a man in the countries bordering the Mediterranean. Today, a wild species of this herb from antiquity is still to be found in Egypt and Sudan.  However, many historians do not agree with this theory of origin. Some claim it was first cultivated in China at least 7,000 years ago. In our times, it is widely grown in all parts of the world, but only in Morocco, western Asia, India, China, and the South American countries is it cultivated and utilized on a large scale.

Historically, coriander has been known to almost every Asian, African, and European civilization.  In ancient China, it was believed that coriander bestowed immortality on ones who constantly used it in their cooking.  In the Egypt of the Pharaohs, it was thought this herb was a food fit for the gods. Coriander seeds have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, apparently as a food offering for the next world.

The Bible (Exodus XVl, 31) compares coriander to the manna that fell from Paradise. On the other hand, the Romans who employed it extensively did not all agree on its qualities.  Piny labeled coriander ‘a very stinking herb’. In later centuries Charlemagne, who loved its taste, ordered that it be grown in all his Imperial gardens.

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

During the medieval ages, the Arabs utilized this herb on a massive scale, not only enjoying its exotic tang but also believed that it stimulated sexual desire.  In the well-known Arabian classic, A Thousand and One Nights, coriander is mentioned it as an aphrodisiac.  After the discovery of the New World, the Conquistadors introduced coriander into the Americas in the 16th century.

The attractive coriander plant, which can be grown from the seeds retailed as a spice, is an annual of the parsley family.  It grows from one to two feet high with slender hollow stems, Italian parsley-like leaves, and tiny pinkish-white flowers. The plant can be easily grown in all types of gardens, but to thrive it needs a dry sunny climate and well-drained light soil.

When mature, it produces a very small oval fruit containing pungent oil.  The smell of this oil repels insects from both the plant and nearby growth.  When dried, the fruit gives out a pleasant aromatic odor and makes a very tasty spice, combining, it is said, the flavor of lemon and sage.

This dry light brown fruit is highly valued in the culinary world as a condiment.  It is used as a pickling spice, sausage seasoning and flavoring for many foods and tobacco products. Also, the seeds are sometimes chewed to sweeten the breath and, some belief, to help in the digestion of food.  In addition, the seeds can be crushed for their oil which is utilized as a food seasoning, medicinal ingredient and to flavor liquor.

These spicy seeds have for many centuries been utilized for seasoning throughout the world.  However, the use of the fresh coriander leaves as a herb, in cooking, is not as widespread, especially in the northern countries of Europe and North America.  On the other hand, in most of the other continents, they are a highly desirable flavoring in daily cuisine.

The leaves of coriander are harvested when the plant is about six inches high. Their racy-mild flavor differs from that of the seed, and their pronounced pungency always adds an exotic touch to the taste of food.  Even though their sapidity is not, in many instances, acceptable to western taste, overwhelmingly, their unusual flavor makes one a devotee of the herb.

Worldwide these savory leaves, which are rich in Vitamins A & C, are employed in cooking and decorating more than parsley.  In the Latin American and eastern cuisine, they are used as a basic flavoring ingredient in a vast number of dishes. The sapid leaves of coriander are as important to the culinary artists in these lands as parsley is to the western housewife.

Numerous types of salads, sauces, curries, soups, stews, and meatloaves are made tempting by the utilization of this appetizing herb.  Furthermore, in the same fashion as parsley, the strongly scented leaves are employed, especially in Middle Eastern lands, to garnish the main course platters. In any event, it matters not if this historic herb is used to please the taste or please the eye, as its effect is always tremendous.

A quarter of a century ago, fresh coriander leaves were virtually unknown in Canada and the northern U.S.A.  However, today they can be found in most Middle Eastern, Latin American, Indian or Chinese shops, and in many supermarkets in the large cities.  Being readily available, there is no doubt that in the years to come, fresh coriander leaves will be added to the daily meals of many housewives in North America.

During the summer months, when coriander is plentiful, the fresh leaves, along with their stems, can be washed, then frozen in plastic bags.  They will keep for a long period of time and are excellent in soups and stews. When ready to use, as much as is needed should be chopped, then the remainder returned to the freezer. The taste will only vary slightly from the leaves that are fresh.

In the Mediterranean world, gourmet cooks have included, for many centuries, fresh coriander leaves in their salads, soups, and stews. Delightful tasty dishes have been the result. There is little doubt that these few recipes from the Middle East and North Africa will attest to this fact.  Remember! Always thoroughly wash the sand from fresh coriander before use.

Lemon and Oil Salad Dressing – Maraq Tawaabil bil Laymoon wal Zayt

For salads that serve from 6 to 8

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

4 tablespoon olive oil

4 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Thoroughly combine all ingredients, then stir and pour over salad. Toss then

Immediately serve.

Artichoke Hearts in Vinegar – Maazat Khurshoof

Serves 4 to 6

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

2 cans artichokes (14 oz each), drained and quartered

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons vinegar

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

pinch of cayenne

Place artichokes in a serving bowl and set aside.

Thoroughly combine remaining ingredients then pour over artichokes. Toss, then immediately serve.

Yemeni Lentil Soup – Shurabat ‘Adas Yamani

Serves about 8

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

1 cup lentils, rinsed

6 cups of water

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup beef or lamb, cut into very small pieces

2 medium sized onions, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 large tomatoes, finely chopped

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Place lentils and water in a pot, then bring to a boil.  Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.

In the meantime, heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté meat over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.  Stir in onions, garlic and coriander leaves then sauté further 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, then sauté for further 5 minutes.  Add frying pan content and remaining ingredients to lentils. Cover pot and bring to boil, then simmer over low heat for about 50 minutes or until meat is well-cooked.

Serve hot.

Tomato and Coriander  Salad – Salatat Banadura wa Kuzbara

Serves about 6

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

5 medium-sized tomatoes, quartered, then thinly sliced

3/4 cup chopped fresh coriander leaves

1  teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

l/8 teaspoon cayenne

3 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

Place tomatoes and coriander leaves in a salad bowl, then gently toss and set aside.

In a small bowl, thoroughly mix remaining ingredients.  Pour over tomatoes and coriander then toss just before serving.

Herb Salad – Salatat Tawabil

Serves about 8

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

1 small bunch dandelion, thoroughly washed and chopped

1 cup finely chopped stemmed parsley

1 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 medium tomatoes, diced into 1/2 inch cubes

1 large clove garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cumin

about 10 pitted black olives, sliced in half

Combine dandelion, parsley, coriander leaves, and tomatoes in a salad bowl then set aside.

In a small bowl, thoroughly mix remaining ingredients, except olives then pour over salad bowl contents.  Toss then decorate with olives and serve.

Eggs with Tomatoes – Bayd ma Banadura

Serves 4 to 6

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

3 tablespoons butter

1 medium-sized potato, diced into 1/2 inch cubes

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 tomatoes, finely chopped

5 eggs, beaten

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cumin

In a frying pan, melt butter, then add potato cubes and sauté over medium heat until they begin to brown.  Stir in coriander leaves, then sauté for few minutes longer. Stir in tomatoes, then stir-fry for further 5 minutes.

In the meantime, combine remaining ingredients then stir into potato-tomato mixture.  Cover, then turn heat to low and cook for a few minutes – until eggs are done.

Baked Tomatoes – Al Duqous

Serves 6 to 8

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

4 large tomatoes (about 2 pounds), sliced about 1/4 inch thick

6 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)

4 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon paprika

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Place tomato slices in a casserole.

Combine remaining ingredients then spread evenly over tomatoes.  Cover, then bake in a 350°F preheated oven for 20 minutes. Serve hot from the casserole.

Fried Liver with Garlic

Serves 4

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

This is one of the best methods of preparing liver. The delicious taste of the liver is unequalled when compared to other methods of cooking.

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small hot pepper, seeded and very finely chopped

4 tablespoons very finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon allspice

4 tablespoons oil

1 pound calf or baby beef liver, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

Thoroughly combine garlic, hot pepper, fresh coriander leaves, salt, pepper, and allspice then set aside.

Heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté liver pieces over fairly high heat until the liver barely begins to brown.  Stir in the garlic mixture, then stir-fry for a few moments. Serve sizzling hot.

Iraqi Meat Stew – Murag

Serves about 8

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

4 tablespoons butter

2 pounds beef or lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

3 medium-sized onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

3 cups of water

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 1/2 cups fresh or frozen peas

In a saucepan, melt butter, then add meat and sauté over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Add coriander leaves, onions, and garlic, then sauté for a further 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, water, salt, pepper, cumin, allspice, and cayenne then bring to boil.  Cover, then turn heat to medium/low and simmer for 40 minutes, adding more water if necessary. Add peas, then simmer further 20 minutes or until meat and peas are cooked, adding a little more water if necessary.

Serve hot with cooked rice.

Chicken with Prunes and Almonds – Moroccan Style

Serves about 8

Fresh Coriander - An Exotic Herb Since Antiquity

1 large chicken (about 4 pounds), cut into serving pieces

3 medium sized onions, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped

4 tablespoons butter

3 cups of water

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon saffron

1 cup prunes, washed and pitted

2 tablespoons honey

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds, lightly toasted

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, lightly toasted

Place chicken pieces in a saucepan, then add onions, garlic, coriander leaves, butter, water, salt, pepper, and saffron, then cover and cook over medium heat until chicken is well cooked, adding more water if necessary.

Remove chicken pieces from the saucepan with a slotted spoon, then place on a serving platter and keep warm.

Add prunes to the remaining liquid in a saucepan then simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Stir in honey and cinnamon then simmer until sauce begins to thicken.  Pour over chicken pieces while sauce it is still piping hot then decorates with almonds and sesame seeds. Serve hot with cooked rice.