Cilantro is in full bloom, a dazzling sight artfully arranged by hundreds of miniscule flowers dancing together. It’s creating fruits now, which are known as coriander seed and used in almost all the sub-continental dishes I grew up eating: daal, curries, biryani, fish, kababs, none of them are without either powdered coriander seeds, crushed coriander seed, or whole roasted coriander seeds. Along with cumin seeds, cardamom pods, turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, and onion, it is a key spice found in every sub-continental kitchen.
When it’s leafing, the fresh leaves are called cilantro (which we call dhania), when it’s fruiting it becomes the spice known as coriander. The leaves and seeds taste very different, are not used interchangeably, and have slightly different energies. The leaves are cooling, whereas the seeds are warming and stimulating. Both are bitter and pungent, both are excellent for the digestive system. Cilantro is high in anti-oxidants, Vitamins C, A, and K, folate, magnesium, iron, and calcium among other nutrients. Sprinkles of fresh chopped cilantro to daily meals are a way to benefit from this herb regularly. It is related to both parsley and carrots.
Cilantro has been used from China (sometimes it is referred to as Chinese parsley), India, and Egypt, to the Mediterranean, and is said to have originated 7000 years ago (as far as records show) in the Middle East. Archaeologists found coriander in the tomb of Ramses II. Perhaps it traveled to other places via the Silk Road, which linked China to Europe and Africa and all places in between by land and later sea from 114 BC to about 1450 AD, and was a vital route for trade involving everything from yes, silk and jade, to gunpowder, spices, ideas, philosophies, and people too.
This herb is easy to grow from seed, best sown directly where you want them. I plant mine late- April through early-May, usually about 10 -14 days before the last frost, in the garden 1/2″ deep and in intervals over the course over three weeks. Once you have it growing, you’ll have both cilantro and, after it’s bolted, coriander. Wait for the fruits to turn brown and gather them by cutting the stems and hanging upside down to dry further. Store them in a jar with a tight lid and enjoy them in culinary adventures. Also, cilantro happily re-seeds, so more may come up in the fall and the following spring in the area of initial planting.
Cilantro is best used fresh, chopped or crushed as needed; it does not retain much flavor when dried or frozen. Cooking changes the flavor too, so it is mostly used raw, as a garnish, or added to soups and daals after they’re cooked, at the very end.
My favorite way to prepare fresh cilantro leaves, other than adding them to salads, eggs, guacamole, salsa, pesto, rice, and daal is to make green chutney. It is very easy to make and very easy to eat as a spread on sandwiches, a marinade for tofu, drizzled on grilled summer squashes or scrambled eggs, or as a dip for pakoras, naan, and grilled chicken and fish. It is a great summer herb, where the cooling nature of its leaves is perfect for the heat of the season.
Simply blend together:
2 cups fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1/2″ fresh ginger
A squeeze of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of cumin powder
Salt to taste
Water as needed to blend into a spreadable or dippable consistency
Optionals are below:
If you like spice, add a green chilli pepper or a jalapeno.
1 -2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup shredded, unsweetened dry coconut (I always add this or use coconut milk in place of water to thin)
2 tbsp. tamarind paste (I always add this too)
Sugar or honey to taste (another option I include)
You can also increase or decrease both the mint and cilantro to suit your tastes.
My favorite use of raw coriander seeds is to make dukkah with them, which highlights the warming properties of this plant, ideal for eating in the cooler months when the inner fires could use a little help.
Dukkah is pronounced DOO-kah, meaning “to crush” or “to pound” in Egyptian Arabic, and indeed it is made by crushing and pounding in mortar with pestle. Dukkah is a delicious seasoning, high in proteins and fats, that we have the ancient Egyptians, and the trade routes, to thank for. We enjoy it on salads, hummus, sprinkled on bread that’s been drizzled with thyme, oregano, and garlic infused olive oil, and especially on pasta salads where it adds a little something else that makes for a happy palate. There are many ways to dukkah, no one way or season in which to enjoy, but all the recipes agree that it must include nuts, seeds, and spices.
I prepare dukkah in the following way:
1 1/2 cups combination pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and almonds, roasted in the oven at 220 – 275 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes or until fragrant then cooled
Dry roast the following in a frying pan, one by one, on the stove top on medium heat, shaking the pan or stirring so they don’t scorch or burn; they roast quite quickly and you can tell by scent that it’s ‘happening’
1/2 cup white sesame seeds
1/2 cup coriander seeds
1/4 cup fennel seeds
1/8 cup cumin seeds
Now begin dukkahing:: crush and pound the prepared roasted ingredients bit by bit in a mortar with pestle, emptying the contents into a mixing bowl as you go along. Sing a song, pound and crush, there’s no rush, crush and pound, round and round . . . it wants to be a bit chunky, so you’re looking to break it up not grind it to powder.
When you’re done, add 1/2 tbsp. red chilli flakes and salt to taste, stir stir toss, give it a taste, and adjust with more salt or red chilli flakes.
Sometimes I’ll even add more roasted elements from above, as well as 1/4 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut and black nigella seeds, both freshly roasted, until it feels done.
In the end, it’s done when you declare it so!