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"What is cilantro?" a student in one of my French cooking classes asked me. My short answer was "the greens of the coriander plant." But his question got me thinking.
What you call this versatile herb often depends on where you are. The name you use is likely to reflect what cuisine you associate with it.
When I first read about the herb in cookbooks, it was called "Chinese parsley." I've also heard it referred to as "Japanese parsley" and "Indian parsley." Cilantro, a Spanish word, is the most common term now used in the US due to the strong influence of Mexican cooking. That's the label you find at the supermarket in many areas of the country. The Mexican impact is so pervasive that many Americans think that cilantro, like chiles, must have come from Mexico. These days even in Britain it's sometimes referred to as "Mexican parsley."
But we in Israel have a much longer history with this plant than the Mexicans. Cilantro's origin is in the Middle East. Indeed, the earliest coriander fruits, from about 6000 BCE, were found in Israel, in the Nahal Hemar cave near the Dead Sea.
According to the Torah, it was known to the ancient Israelites. Manna was compared to it in Exodus: "And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna: and it was like coriander seed."
Eli Putievsky and Amotz Dafni wrote in their book, Spices (in Hebrew; Masada, 1979): "Coriander was cultivated in Israel at the time of the Mishna, and it is clear that both the leaves and the seeds were widely used."
Having spent my childhood and my early teen years in Washington, D.C., I did not encounter cilantro until I moved to Jerusalem. Yet even in Israel the terminology seemed mystifying. The word used in the Bible is gad, but if you go to the store and ask for some gad, you'll probably get a blank stare. The common name for it in Israel is kuzbara, which is actually Arabic.
Cilantro is more of a Sephardi than an Ashkenazi herb, yet my Polish-born mother, after living in Jerusalem for many years, usually put some in her chicken soup. I love it in Moroccan marinades for fish, for which it's combined with oil, lemon juice and paprika. I like it in Yemenite hilbeh (fenugreek dip) because it balances the bitterness of the fenugreek. Throughout the Mideast cilantro is a favorite herb in stews and relishes.
Egyptians are particularly fond of both the leaves and the coriander seeds.
Travel eastward and you'll find no less enthusiasm for coriander greens. Cilantro sprigs commonly top Indian stews. Thai cooks perfume their curry pastes with it, and frequently use not only the plant's greens and seeds, but the roots as well. Cilantro is a standard element on the Vietnamese tray of herbs for sprinkling into soups; doing so is a great way to perk up the flavor of the broth.
How you use cilantro makes a big difference. The leaves have the greatest effect if you add them to a hot dish at the last moment. For some dishes, such as the Persian herb-flavored meat and bean stew called gormeh sabzi, the cilantro is sauteed slowly with other herbs. The same is true for the stewed chicken that becomes the filling for the lavish Moroccan pie, b'stilla. Cooking gives the cilantro a more muted flavor, completely different from that of the raw herb.
In choosing cilantro, many prefer bunches with long stems. The stems are flavorful and so tender that you can chop them along with the leaves, making cilantro much easier to use than parsley.
Most people have strong feelings about cilantro - they either love it or hate it. Some find its flavor reminds them of a blend of parsley and citrus, but those who dislike it say it tastes like soap. In classic dishes in which cilantro is characteristic, Mexican Chef Sal Topete of El Torito Restaurant in Woodland Hills, California, suggested an easy solution: Garnish the dish with small cilantro sprigs, so that diners have the option to eat it or not.
BAKED FISH IN CHILE
This Egyptian fish casserole is redolent of the fresh flavor of cilantro as well as its ground seed, coriander.
700 grams cod, halibut or other firm lean fish, about 2.5-cm. thick, cut in 4 pieces
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (fresh
3 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil salt
and pepper to taste
1 medium onion, chopped
1 semi-hot green pepper or 1â„2 sweet
green pepper, diced
2 hot peppers, minced, or 1â„4 teaspoon
hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. ground coriander
1â„2 tsp. ground cumin
2 fresh ripe or canned small
tomatoes, pureed in a blender or
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1â„3 cup water
Cilantro sprigs, for garnish
Put fish steaks in a tray in one layer. Mix lemon juice with 1 tablespoon cilantro, 1 tablespoon oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pour over fish and turn to coat both sides.
Let stand while preparing sauce.
Preheat oven to 200C. Heat remaining oil in a skillet. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat about 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add semi-hot and hot peppers and garlic and cook for 1 minute. Stir in ground coriander, cumin, pureed tomatoes and tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in water and bring to a simmer.
Add remaining cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Lightly oil a baking dish large enough to hold fish in a single layer. Spoon about 1â„3 of sauce into dish. Top with fish and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Top with remaining sauce. Cover and bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until fish can just be flaked with a fork in its thickest part. Serve garnished with cilantro sprigs.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).