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Coriander: Unsung hero of Indian cuisine

07 Dec 2022 00:02:14 | Update: 07 Dec 2022 00:02:14
Coriander: Unsung hero of Indian cuisine

Peek inside any Indian spice box, and you’ll likely find the holy trifecta of spices – turmeric, red chilli powder and ground coriander (often mixed with cumin) ¬¬– that forms the base of many a curry, lentil or vegetable dish.

Though it lacks the striking ochre hue of haldi (turmeric) and isn’t associated with any of India’s signature red-hot flavours (like chilli powder), coriander (commonly called dhaniya or kothmir in India) is perhaps the most versatile of these spices. Its coarsely ground seeds bring warmth and nuttiness to many dishes, while as a powder, it can be used to thicken curries. As an herb, its fresh stalks and leaves often serve as an aromatic and tangy finishing flavour.

It’s so customary to Indian cooking that pushcart vendors will cheerfully toss a complimentary bunch of fresh coriander (as well as a handful of green chillies) into customers’ bags. Its sheer ubiquity makes it a hero – albeit an unsung one – of Indian cuisine.

Elsewhere in the world, though, dislike towards the herb form of coriander is fierce. Dedicated social media communities diligently denounce it, even commemorating their distaste annually with an international I Hate Coriander Day on 24 February. While those who appreciate the herb describe it as fresh, fragrant and citrusy, those who loathe it claim that it tastes like soap, dirt or bugs – often citing that the name coriander itself comes from the Greek word koris, meaning “bedbug” due to its pungent smell.

Research shows that a dislike for coriander might be inherited due to a genetic variant, which could account for much of its polarised response around the world. However, some studies show that the aversion is less pronounced among South Asians as a result of exposure to its strong flavour during childhood.

To South Asians, coriander is much more than just a garnish. Instead of tossing copious amounts of it onto completed dishes as an afterthought – as is customary for the stereotypical “exported” dishes the West most readily associates with Indian cuisine such as tikka masala – South Asians use it deliberately throughout different parts of the cooking process and in many dishes. While preparing a gravy, coriander powder is typically used alongside turmeric and cumin to add bulk and a slightly sour undertone. Coriander seeds might be added to a tadka, a technique of tempering or “blooming” spices and aromatics by frying them in hot oil and adding them to a dish to infuse and unlock flavour, while leaves are often ground into a tantalising chutney or added sparingly to a yoghurt-based raita. Fresh coriander can also be finely chopped and sprinkled delicately on dishes as a final flourish.

Still, while coriander might be thoroughly enmeshed with Indian cooking, it’s often uncelebrated in the kitchen – its sheer affordability, accessibility and ubiquity leading it to be taken for granted.