Etymology of Coriander

Khushboo Batra

We have seen how a simple aloo-ki-sabzi or chicken curry tastes much better with a liberal garnishing of coriander. But what exactly is coriander? Is it just grass? Are coriander and cilantro the same? It is interesting to know that coriander has historical ties to the ancient Greeks, the Renaissance and the Spanish Conquistadors. When the Greeks smelled coriander, it smelt strongly like a bug. And therefore, the word coriander is derived from the Greek word koriannon, a combination of koris (a stinking bug) and annon (a fragrant anise).

Taken together, the full scientific name calls coriander the cultivated buggy-smelling plant. In Latin, it is spelled corriandrum and by the way of old French, who spelled it coriander, it came into English as coriander in the 14th century. The ancient Greek physicians recommended coriander to be used as a medicine.

Coriander was added to love potions during the medieval and Renaissance periods and it was said that when consumed with wine, coriander stimulated animalistic passions. The British mixed coriander with cumin and vinegar and used to preserve meat. And, the Chinese believed that those who consumed coriander seeds would be rewarded with immortality. When it comes to cilantro, it is the Spanish word for coriander leaves. Even though people in the UK and the US speak the same language, still there are some discrepancies in spelling some of the words. People in the UK, would refer the leaves and stalks of the plant as ‘coriander’ but people in the US use the word ‘cilantro’ for it! Hence, they are the same herbs but with different names.

Part of the carrot family, cilantro is used fresh in salsas, salads, burritos, pickles, curries and the meat dishes of many cuisines. It is sometimes called Mexican Parsley or Chinese Parsley and lends a citrus-like flavour. Dried coriander is used in bakery goods, and flavouring for liqueurs. Love it or hate it, coriander is one of the most versatile and widely used herbs around the world. Coriander is hardly used in French or American kitchens, but is an essential ingredient in Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Turkish, Spanish, North African, and Mexican cuisine.

A true Mexican salsa and guacamole must have this essential herb. Both, the fresh herb and the dried seed, are used frequently in chutney and relishes in India. The coriander based chutney (which we normally refer to as green chutney), goes well with all the Indian snacks-chaat, dhoklas, pakoras, samosas etc. To make it, you just need to add coriander, finely chopped green chillies, lemon juice, ginger, salt, jeera, oil, sugar and curd. You can mix a couple of mint leaves in it too. It is commonly used in lamb rogan josh, malai kofta, aloo gobhi, masala dosa and is best added to dishes before serving, as the heat can reduce its potency. That way, the fresh green coriander sits atop the dish and makes it look delicious. It pairs well with basil, carrot, chicken, avocado, couscous etc. and is used as an essential ingredient in many South Asian foods (particularly chutneys), in Chinese dishes and in Mexican salsas and guacamole.

Chopped coriander leaves are also used as a garnish on cooked dishes such as dal and many curries. Coriander seed is a key spice in garam masala and Indian curries and vegetables. Now if you are tempted to make any dish using these herbs, then the following recipe of Vegetarian Chili is what you should try.