Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) was one of the substances utilized by Hippocrates, and other Greek physicians, for medicinal purposes. The Romans made coriander a popular seasoning, and introduced it to Great Britain. It was later brought to America, and became one of the first spices grown in New England.
It’s an annual herb native to the Mediterranean region and Western Asia. However, commercial supplies now come from Turkey, India, Bulgaria, Russia, and Morocco. It’s even mentioned in ancient Egyptian, Sanskrit, and Greek writings.
Coriander grows wild in Palestine, making it no surprise that it’s mentioned in the Bible. The manna God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula during their exodus from Egypt was described as being “like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31).
To distinguish them from the seeds, the savory leaves of coriander are referred to in America as cilantro—the common Spanish name for coriander. The green, tangy leaves of cilantro must be used fresh, since drying or freezing them destroys most of their aroma.
Cilantro is featured in Indian, Vietnamese, Latin American, Chinese, Spanish Caribbean, African, and Middle-Eastern cooking. These populations enjoy the unique lemony flavor of cilantro sprinkled on cooked dishes; or minced in sauces, soups, and curries. The young leaves are the most tasty and appealing and are popular in salads mixed with lettuce, onion, and tomato. Cilantro is essential for Asian chutneys and Mexican salsas.
Seeds Serve Many Purposes
The small, round, spicy seeds have the best aromatic flavor when harvested as they’re turning yellowish-brown. The flavor of the dried seeds improves with age—a flavor described as warm, nutty, and spicy. The seeds can be used for flavoring foods such as cooked vegetable dishes, soups, breads, and cakes, and to flavor beverages. They boast a flavor combining the taste of lemon peel and sage.
In India, coriander seed is a very important ingredient in curry powders, where it is the bulkiest component and can give the curry a crunchy texture. Coriander seed also appears in stews and soups, and may be added to fresh salsas and sauces, cakes, baked goods, and puddings. Ground coriander finds a welcome home in pancake and waffle mixes, giving each a distinctive Middle-Eastern flavor. Blended with cumin, coriander is a common ingredient for falafels. Taklia, a popular Arab spice mixture, is simply coriander and garlic, crushed and fried.
Years ago, coriander seeds were coated with sugar and used as candy. These sweets were commonly thrown from carnival wagons into the waiting audience. Another use of the herb has been to mask the unpleasant taste of some medicines. Coriander seed extract is also utilized in the perfumery industry to provide a pleasant woodland fragrance.
Coriander seed preparations were used as a digestive aid and to treat stomach disorders in traditional Chinese, Indian, and European medicine; often in combination with other seeds such as cardamom, fennel, anise, and caraway. The seeds can be used for making medicinal teas to soothe an upset stomach, treat indigestion, and relieve intestinal gas. In Germany, it’s approved for the treatment of dyspeptic complaints, mild gastrointestinal upsets, flatulence, and to help stimulate the appetite.
Coriander sometimes appears as a component in laxative remedies and medications for diarrhea. The seeds can sweeten bad breath and act as a mouthwash. In Asia, they treat colic.
The aromatic oil in coriander is a digestive stimulant and contains linalool and other important terpenoids. Additional active compounds include flavonoids, phenolic acids, and mucilage (a soluble fiber). It also contains a number of substances with mild antibacterial activity. Preliminary reports suggest that both cilantro and the coriander seeds boast dodecanal, a natural antibiotic that protects against food-borne illnesses caused by Salmonella.
Coriander seeds contribute phthalides and polyacetylenes, phytochemcials commonly found in plants belonging to the parsley family, all cancer protectors. They offer small amounts of coumarins, substances that possess blood-thinning properties, along with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.
As an herb, coriander is entirely safe, has no side effects, no contraindications, and can be safely used during pregnancy. Ground coriander is apt to lose its flavor quickly; so it should be stored in an opaque airtight container in a cool, dark place. Better yet, grind the seeds only as needed.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.