Experiencing Coriander/Cilantro

Published in the column A Flirtation With Herbs in Healthy Options Magazine, New Zealand, April 2009

Amaia and Rat

I was away for much of the summer, helping my sister with her newest addition to the family. As a result, my balcony garden didn’t do so well. My spaghetti squash died, my nasturtiums were killed in an aphid infestation, my calendula was ravaged by fungus and the coriander bolted. I managed to harvest about twelve tiny, incredibly delicious tomatoes, but my bumper crop was coriander seeds. Even so, there wasn’t enough to cover even a weeks worth of cooking (I love coriander), but it was fun hanging out with those clusters of gleaming green balls bouncing on the breeze in the sun amongst a delicate backdrop of frilly coriander leaves and lacy white flowers. I have a couple seeds in my mouth as I write this and the flavor is much fuller than any store-bought coriander seed I have ever tried. I have been adding them to homemade kimchi and bread. I now think of the coriander seeds as what they technically are: nutrient powerhouses and flavor-packed fruits (Fructus coriandri) not simply a dry spice.

Coriander is one of the first herbs I knew of, my mother used to grow it with dill, sweet corn and peas, occasionally a pig would get into the yard and us kids would go tearing out of the house to chase it out, squealing and snorting in terror, before it dug up our garden. My parents were missionaries, so we grew up in a village in Papua New Guinea that had lots of pigs. We later went to boarding school in Penang, where everyone seemed to eat coriander/cilantro on everything.

I was therefore quite surprised to find there are people who find the smell and flavor of coriander revolting. I remember the discovery well. I was working at Mudbrick Vineyard, out at Waiheke Island, our Sous Chef at the time was from England. He was revamping the menu and we were making a tomato, lemon-grass and coriander broth for green-lipped mussels. As I started to load in the coriander he said, “Go easy on the coriander, most people can’t stand it.” I couldn’t believe my ears, from my perspective this confirmed my preconception that the British palate was dull and unadventurous. I secretly added more when he wasn’t looking.