When you talk about coriander, you tend to think of simple dishes like carrot and coriander soup or perhaps adding it to Indian dishes. But coriander is actually a very versatile herb that has a lot of uses and also a surprising number of benefits.
Coriander is a plant of many names – it’s Latin name is Coriandrum sativum while it is also known as cilantro in the US, as Chinese parsley and as dhania in India. The plant itself originally came from southern Europe and northern Africa as well as south-western Asia and has variable shaped leaves as well as small white or pale pink flowers.
As a cultivated plant, coriander has been used since the times of Ancient Greece with a Linear B tablet from Pylos referring to its use in making perfumes as well as its seeds being used in food. It was taken by early settlers to North America in the mid-1600s and was one of the first spices they cultivated.
All of the plant is edible but the leaves and the dried seeds are the most popular parts. The leaves of the plant are said to have a citrus tang to them though some people dislike the smell and say it is soapy. Uses in Indian food are diverse from chutneys and salads as well as main dishes while it is also used in Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Russian and other traditional cuisines. The seeds can be dried and ground and also have a lemon flavour when crushed or warm and orange flavoured when dried. They can be roasted and are an Indian snack called dhana dal when this is done.
In addition to being edible, the plant is also used to help with the control of aphids on lettuce plants. A scheme in the Salinas Valley of California found that by planting coriander with the lettuce, the plant attracts hoverflies which lay their eggs on it. These eggs hatch and the larvae eat hundreds of aphids a day, protecting the lettuce plants from a top pest.
It is simple to get your hands on coriander, including small plants in the supermarkets, fresh leaves in packets and ground seeds in the herb and spice aisle. It is also a reasonably easy herb to grow and can be done in the house. It likes sunshine but also a little shade at the hottest part of the day. The best way to grow it is from seed and sowing them in the pot they will remain in as the plants are a bit sensitive to being transplanted. If you want the seeds primarily, then full sun is ideal as this will trigger quick flower production while for the leaves, keep a little more in the shade.
While any health benefits assigned to herbs and spices has to be viewed with a little caution unless scientifically backed, there are a number of solid benefits that coriander may offer.
Coriander includes a number of acids including linoleic, oleic and ascorbic acids that have been linked with reducing cholesterol levels in the blood, particularly the ‘bad’ cholesterol called LDL. This is the stuff that accumulates along the arteries and can cause blockages but these acids help to break it down and stop the accumulation. The herb has also been shown to boost levels of the ‘good’ cholesterol or HDL.
Other possible benefits include helping control blood pressure due to the interaction of two elements within the plant. It can help with digestion and ease diarrhoea as well as assisting in the healthy function of the liver and bowel. It has long been used in natural medicines as a preventative for nausea, vomiting and stomach problems as well as to treat mouth ulcers, due to the presence of citronelol, a natural antiseptic.
Coriander has also been shown to help stimulate the endocrine glands and the secretion of insulin which is beneficial to people suffering with diabetes. It helps to level out blood sugar levels and avoid those lows and highs that can be so dangerous to a diabetic.
Cooking with coriander
It is best to add coriander to any dish just before serving as heat can spoil the flavour of the herb. It works particularly well alongside other herbs such as basil and mint as well as with chilli, carrot, chicken, beef, coconut, garlic, ginger and soy.
One of the best known coriander dishes is Carrot and Coriander Soup. There are loads of different recipes available but the basic of the dish uses an onion and 450g of carrots that are sliced and prepared then cooked for a few minutes until softened. Added to this is a teaspoon of ground coriander and salt and pepper. After a minute, add 1.2 litres of vegetable stock and bring the mixture to the boil then simmer until the vegetables are tender. Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend until smooth then stir in the fresh coriander and serve. Other recipes add crème fraiche or cream to make for a creamier flavour.
Coriander works well in curries and other Asian dishes but also works well with fish and seafood. Chili and Coriander Stir-fried Prawns are a great example from Ready Steady Cook and involves adding a tablespoon of olive oil to a wok then adding 10 cooked king prawns and 1 Scotch Bonnet chili (or your favourite). Fry the mixture for a minute then add a small bunch of blanched asparagus, cooking for a minute or two. Finally, toss in a handful of fresh coriander leaves and the juice of a lime as well as salt and black pepper as required before serving.