Divine flavouring? Well, God used it

You don’t need to be lost in the Sinai to enjoy coriander.

By Ruth Joseph, May 14, 2009

These days we enjoy coriander as an ingredient or garnish in curries and Middle Eastern foods. The Sephardim have always been aware of coriander’s special qualities but it has taken Askenazi cooks a while longer — encouraged by foreign travel and the herb’s availability — to understand its magic.

But coriander is one of the oldest herbs in the Bible. The parsha of Beshalach in Exodus concentrates on the time when the Israelites left Egyptian slavery and were wandering in the wilderness. Naturally, food sources were extremely limited and the people, starving and terrified, muttered of their hunger. The parsha describes how God heard their pleas and sent down manna.

“And the house of Israel called its name mawn (manna): and it was like zera gad (coriander seed), white, and its taste was like wafers with honey” (Exodus 13:61).

Eventually the Israelites became bored with the monotony of this new food and complained. But Rashi, commenting on this fact, says despite their moans, the manna was like coriander seed and unique — thus valuable.

It has certainly been enjoyed since prehistoric times. One of the first recipes ever discovered, carved out on Sumerian tablets 4000 years ago, contained coriander. The seeds were found within the Tombs of Egypt in 960BC as it was considered both a perfume and a medicine, and it was known to be planted within the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. During the Second World War, coriander seeds were dipped in pink and white sugar to be thrown at carnival time as a form of confetti. And the Chinese devour vast amounts of the herb, believing it to contain powers of eternal life.

So coriander has a special heritage and is thought to be the widest-used herb in the world. Sometimes called Chinese parsley, or cilantro in America, it is related to the parsley plant. It is one of the very few plants which contain both herb and spice, for the leaves and stems can be used as a pungent herb while the dried seeds produce a fragrant spice. Not only is coriander delicious but it is known to have carminative properties — in Ayurvedic medicine, it is used to give relief from flatulence.

Needless to say, it is one of those herbs you either love or hate. I subscribe to the loving fraternity and revel in the way a few finely chopped leaves and stalks add freshness and instant flavour to a dish; so much so that my husband has started to grow some for me, along with my other herbs. Coriander loves dill and marries well with parsley, mint or chives. But use with caution — a few leaves go a long way — 25g (1 oz) finely chopped per 450g, (1lb) meat.

Add finely chopped coriander leaves and stems to lamb, chicken or turkey-burgers along with plenty of finely chopped onion, maybe a little garlic, with a dash of cinnamon and chilli powder for an instant taste of the East.

Simply cook some red lentils in stock (200g, 7oz raw serves four) until tender and mushy, season with freshly ground salt and pepper, half a tablespoon of garam masala and a little chopped coriander and you will have a very healthy basic dhal to enjoy with rice or as a side-dish.

Add chopped coriander and mint to a cucumber salad and combine with plain organic set yoghurt for an unusual creamy taste. Or add finely chopped coriander leaves to a grated carrot salad to which you have added a few chopped dates, chopped walnuts and the grated juice and rind of an orange. Delicious and healthy.

Coriander and Coconut baked fish

Serves 4

● 4 x 125g (4 oz) fresh salmon or equivalent firm-fleshed fish fillet
● 1 fresh lime — finely grate rind then cut into 8 lengthways
● 400ml (14 floz) can coconut milk – low fat or for extra luxury use full-fat
● 25g (1 oz) fresh coriander, save a few fronds for decoration
● 3 fresh, cleaned and trimmed spring onions
● Freshly milled salt and pepper
● ½ clove peeled garlic
● ½ chopped green mild chilli, without seeds (these are optional )
● 1 thumb-size, peeled ginger piece

● Set oven on 190˚C, 375˚F, Gas 5
● Process coriander, spring onions, garlic, ginger and lime rind with the salt, pepper and coconut milk.
● Add the chopped chillies. Lay the fish fillets on base of a flat, oven-proof dish.
● Pour over coconut/coriander mixture.
● Cover with foil or a lid and bake for 20 mins.
● Serve hot, decorated with the lime pieces and garnished with a few extra coriander fronds.

Last updated: 12:04pm, May 14 2009