Sunday, October 31, 2010

In praise of coriander Times Of India Crest October 30, 2010

The herb deserves to be more than just a garnish.
I cannot imagine life without coriander. I remember a time when I lived in Chandigarh for a few years. Vegetables were available seasonally and I spent the entire summer feeling deprived because I could not get even the tiniest sprig of coriander. My dals looked pallid and felt heavy without bits of coriander bursting between my teeth to release their fresh, citrus flavour, my chicken curries tasted like something was missing and my vegetables looked naked. Coriander is an essential herb in Indian cuisine. No cook of Indian food will let a dish reach the table without a generous sprinkle of it. But, even though its absence is felt immediately, like the bridesmaid that never becomes a bride, coriander never seems to cross the divide from being a garnish into a dish.

Cilantro or coriander is also called kothmir and dhaniya. All parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are most commonly used in cooking. Recipes that specifically use coriander as the main ingredient can be counted on the finger of one hand. There are a variety of coriander chutneys, of course, ranging from the ubiquitous green coriander and coconut chutney to the kothamalli thogayal that the Palakkad Iyer Brahmin community makes by frying red chillies and urad daal in a teaspoon of oil, and grinding it with coriander, tamarind and coconut. Then there are a few dishes that have coriander chutney such as the
Parsi patra ni machhi - fish smeared with coriander chutney, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.

But dishes that use coriander leaves in their whole form are few and far between. There are regional variations of corianderbased chicken and mutton curries, from the Kashmiri dhaniwal korma and dhaniwal kokur, meat that's cooked in a gravy of coriander and yoghurt to the Kannadiga dish kothombri kori, which consists of chicken cooked in a coriander gravy, and the Goan chicken cafreal. But the one dish that deserves special mention is the Hyderabadi kothmir murg which calls for a kilo of coriander for every kilo of chicken. The only other dish that truly harnesses the flavours of coriander leaves is the Maharashtrian kothimbir vadi, in which finely chopped coriander is stirred into a paste of besan and steamed as long dumplings that are fried.

Besides Indian food, coriander is used in many cuisines around the world. Most South East Asian cuisines use the leaves as a garnish for soups. Dhania is common in Kenyan cuisine where the Hindi word for it is used, thanks to the country's large Indian immigrant population. But in all of these cuisines that use coriander there is a singular lack of dishes that use it as the main ingredient.

Which is such a pity because this delicate fern-like-herb has so much flavour. As long as each part of the plant is used independently. The leaves spoil quickly once parted from the plant and unlike parsley and dill, which belong to the same family, coriander leaves lose their aroma when dried or frozen. Chop finely and toss into a coriander-based tabouli salad instead of traditional parsley. Instead of parsley, add lots of chopped coriander and garlic to chermoula along with generous lashings of olive oil and lemon juice.

Coriander lends itself beautifully to blending as well. Blend leaves and tender stems with olive oil, cashews, white pepper, salt and parmigiano reggiano to make a fragrant coriander version of a traditional basil pesto. Two favourite ways I like to use it are either in a salad dressing in which I blend one cup of coriander with half a cup of raisins, the juice of two lemons and olive oil. I toss this with lots of halved California grapes, crisp iceberg lettuce and walnuts for a delicious salad to accompany a continental meal. For an Asian dip, blend coriander with soya sauce, honey and pepper.

Most people use coriander leaves but discard stems. That's a pity because the tender stems of coriander are a powerhouse of flavour. It's something that the Parsis have discovered. What distinguishes akoori from other scrambled egg recipes is that it has coriander leaves in two forms. A handful of coriander, with stems attached, is added at the beginning of the recipe to the oil that is heated. The remaining coriander goes in right at the end.

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