Cilantro, fresh coriander, Chinese parsley. This herb goes by many different names, which can be confusing, but the slightly floral and citrus taste of fresh cilantro is unmistakable. The leaves are sometimes called fresh coriander or more commonly cilantro, and in Indian cooking they’re referred to as dhania. But the seeds are also called coriander (without the adjectival “fresh”)and cannot be interchanged with fresh cilantro in recipes. Are you with us so far?
Both the fresh leaves and the seeds add dimension to some of the world’s favourite savoury dishes from the Caribbean to the Middle East to Asia. Coriander seeds can be found in the spice aisle in whole or ground form, and are used in the Indian spice mixture garam masala, English pickling recipes, Middle Eastern falafel and often paired with cumin in savoury dishes. And coriander seeds are also one of my favourite ingredients. Fresh cilantro leaves are part of Southeast Asian curries and soups, Mexican salsas and are a garnish for many Indian dishes. In Thailand, the whole root, as well as the leaf, is used as a flavour boost for curry.
Cilantro grows wild in Southeast Asia and is cultivated in India, Egypt and China. Mention of cilantro is found in Sanskrit texts and the Bible, and its scent is said to have infused the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Tales of its power as an aphrodisiac are part of the classic collection of stories in One Thousand and One Nights. Spanish explorers brought it to the New World, where it was quickly incorporated into Peruvian and Mexican cuisine. Although the ingredient has not permeated the cuisines of Western Europe, the word coriander itself is thought to come from the Greek word for bedbug (koris), which some say has a similar smell (sounds appetizing!).
Despite its wide use and historical pedigree, some people cannot stand the fresh leaves, saying that they taste soapy or like tin foil. There is some evidence to suggest that this strong reaction against cilantro may be a genetic trait. Julia Child had a well-known hatred of fresh cilantro (and arugula, but that’s another story). Sadly, its detractors are forced to avoid guacamole, South American ceviche, Thai curries and Indian chutneys. Few herbs inspire such strong love or hate reactions. But a willingness to eat and cook with coriander/cilantro/dhania/Chinese parsley (whatever you want to call it) will open up myriad eclectic, global cuisines.
Too bad some folks will never know how cilantro makes life more flavourful.
Here’s our recipe for Indian-Spiced Chicken Kabobs with Fresh Cilantro
- 1 cup plain yogurt (preferably whole milk, 3.8% M.F. or higher)
- 3 tbsp lemon juice 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
- 2 tsp grated gingerroot
- 1 tsp ground coriander seeds
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground cardamom
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 cups packed fresh cilantro leaves
- ½ cup chopped green onion
- ¼ cup chopped seeded jalapeno pepper
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 1 tsp grated gingerroot
- ½ tsp granulated sugar Salt to taste
- Combine yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, gingerroot, coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl and stir until uniform. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add chicken and toss until well coated. Allow chicken to marinate for 1 hour at room temperature.
- Prepare chutney while chicken is marinating. Place cilantro leaves, green onion, jalapeno pepper, lemon juice, gingerroot and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process until it forms a loose green sauce. Season with salt to taste.
- Soak 8 wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes. Divide chicken between the skewers, and season lightly with salt. Preheat a barbecue or oiled grill pan on high heat. Grill chicken, turning occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes or until lightly browned on the outside and just cooked through.
- Serve chutney alongside kabobs.