Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) has been used in Chinese cooking and medicine for millennia. It belongs to the parsley family, as does anise, caraway, dill and fennel. The fruits and leaves of coriander possess very different flavors and hence are used in different ways to flavor food.
Coriander is an annual herb native to the Mediterranean region and Western Asia. However, commercial supplies now come from Turkey, India, Bulgaria, Russia, and Morocco. Coriander is a very ancient herb. It is mentioned in ancient Egyptian, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin writings. The ancient records reveal that coriander was used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
It was one of the substances utilized by Hippocrates, and other Greek physicians, for medicinal purposes. The Romans made coriander a popular spice, and introduced it to Great Britain. It was later brought to America, and was one of the first spices grown in New England.
Coriander grows wild in Palestine. Hence, it’s no surprise that it is mentioned in the Bible. The manna that was provided for the Israelites in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula during the Exodus was described as being “like coriander seed” and tasting like wafers made with honey (see Exodus 16:31).
To distinguish them from the seeds, the savory leaves of coriander are referred to in America as cilantro, which is the common Spanish name for coriander. The green, tangy leaves of cilantro, or Chinese parsley as it is also called, must be used fresh, since drying or freezing cilantro destroys most of its aroma.
Cilantro features in Indian, Vietnamese, Latin American, Chinese, Spanish Caribbean, African, and Middle Eastern cooking. These populations enjoy the unique lemony flavor of cilantro sprinkled on cooked dishes, or minced in sauces, soups and curries. The young leaves are the most tasty and appealing and are popular in salads mixed with lettuce, onion and tomato. Cilantro is essential for Asian chutneys and Mexican salsas.
The small, round, spicy fruits (seeds) have the best aromatic flavor when they are harvested at the stage that they are turning yellowish-brown. The flavor of the dried seeds improves with age. The flavor is described as warm, nutty, and spicy. The seeds are used for flavoring foods such as cooked vegetable dishes, soups, breads and cakes, and to flavor beverages. The seeds provide a flavor combining the taste of lemon peel and sage.
In India, coriander seed is a very important ingredient in curry powders, where it is the bulkiest component. It is often ground in a way to give the curry a crunchy texture. Coriander seed is also used in stews and soups, and may be may also be added to fresh salsas and sauces, cakes, baked goods, and puddings. Ground coriander can be added to pancake and waffle mixes to give them a distinctive Middle Eastern flavor. Coriander mixed with cumin is a common combination for falafels. Taklia, a popular Arab spice mixture, is coriander and garlic, crushed and fried. Coriander is also a popular addition to meat and fish dishes, or cottage cheese.
Years ago, coriander seeds were coated with sugar and used as candy. These sweets were commonly thrown from carnival wagons into the waiting audience. Another use of coriander has been to mask the unpleasant taste of some medicines. Coriander seed extract is also used in the perfumery industry to provide a pleasant woodland fragrance.
Coriander seed preparations were used as a digestive aid and to treat stomach disorders in traditional Chinese, Indian, and European medicine often in combination with other seeds such as cardamom, fennel, anise, and caraway. Coriander seed can be used for making a medicinal tea to soothe an upset stomach, to treat indigestion, and relieve intestinal gas. In Germany, it is approved for the treatment of dyspeptic complaints, mild gastrointestinal upsets, flatulence, and to help stimulate the appetite.
Coriander also has spasmolytic activity. It sometimes appears as a component in some laxative remedies and medications for diarrhea. Coriander seeds can be used to sweeten bad breath, and as a mouthwash. In Asia, the seeds are used to treat colic, and to make a paste to treat mouth ulcers.
The aromatic oil in coriander is a digestive stimulant. The oil contains linalool and other important terpenoids. Other active compounds in coriander include flavonoids, phenolic acids and mucilage (a soluble fiber). Coriander also contains a number of substances with mild anti-bacterial activity. Preliminary reports suggest that both cilantro and the coriander seeds contain dodecanal, a natural antibiotic that protects against food-borne illnesses caused by Salmonella.
Coriander seeds also contain phthalides and polyacetylenes. These phytochemcials, commonly found in plants belonging to the parsley family, are protective against cancer. They also contain small amounts of coumarins, substances that possess blood thinning properties. Coriander also contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.
As a herb, coriander is entirely safe, has no side effects, no contraindications, and can be safely used during pregnancy. Ground coriander is apt to lose its flavor quickly so that one should store it in an opaque airtight container in a cool, dark place. Better yet, one should grind the seeds only as they are needed.