Coriander candour

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is an interesting plant. A member of the huge Apium genus of umbellifers, closely related to other important culinary plants such as caraway, carrot, celery, chervil, cumin, dill, fennel, parsley and parsnip, it is best known these days as an integral ingredient of curry powder, garam masala and pan-Asian spicy dishes. Native to western Asia, the adaptable hardy annual is a profuse producer of seeds and long ago spread out from its original homelands to become naturalised in temperate climates across the world, including lowland Wales.

For reasons I can only ascribe to standard British ignorance and parochialism, coriander is generally seen as exotic and foreign in these benighted isles, when in fact it has been grown here for thousands of years. It has its own name in Welsh, llysiau’r bara (‘the bread herb’), a mysterious formulation that I can’t explain, despite my best endeavours ploughing through Welsh etymology tomes. Was the herb used here to add some taste to otherwise plain unleavened breads, a distant Welsh forerunner of today’s garlic and coriander nan bread, that ubiquitous staple of every Indian restaurant? I await enlightenment from any cunning linguist who might be reading.

The English word ‘coriander’ is smell-derived, coming via French and Latin from the Ancient Greek word for the bed bug, Kóris, because to Ancient Greek nostrils the plant’s seeds and the pesky human parasite shared the same smell. Apparently bed bugs have the aroma of rotten raspberries, but never having been afflicted with the little buggers I can’t vouch for that. What is indisputable is the plant’s powerful range of smells: the long fibrous roots are pungent and sharp, the feathery leaves have the zing of lemon to them, the ball-like seeds start off foetid, although not at all raspberry-esque to my big hooter, before smelling pleasantly of warm oranges as they mature.

One of the strange things about coriander is that its smell and taste depend entirely on each individual’s genetics. To around 20% of Europeans, for instance, it is repellent, tasting strongly of soap or of decomposition. Moreover it can trigger allergic reactions, again depending on genetic factors. Studies have shown over 30% of children are allergic to coriander, with symptoms that can range from minor to life-threatening – a sensitivity to the plant’s many volatile oils that fades as people get older. It’s a herb for specific palates, for specific cuisines and for grown-ups.

A surprising thing to me about coriander is that it’s the most popular shop-bought herb in the UK – comfortably outselling kitchen standbys like parsley and basil. This can only be because of curry’s centrality to UK dining and the fact that coriander doesn’t need cooking: just chop it up, sprinkle raw on top as a garnish, and you can convincingly pass that curry off as home-made rather than deliveroo’ed from the local takeaway! This might fool some, but it’s actually counterproductive to pay £1.50 for 100 grams of supermarket cut coriander, turning black, sweating in its plastic bag and with a lifespan of just 24 hours, when it is so easy to grow – even in the depths of winter when a small coriander pot plant on a bright windowsill will push out plenty of greenery until spring arrives and outdoor cultivation can commence.

I grow it most summers, when I can find a space for the rather untidy, straggly creature in the back garden. I’ve got the light, alkaline, well-drained soil it likes, so it just needs a bit of elbow-room, a sunny spot and a dry summer to do well. The young, bright green leaves can be picked as soon as they appear, which encourages more growth. I chop them up, stalks and all, and either use immediately with curries and dhals or else in soups. The seeds are a real bonus. If conditions are right they arrive suddenly in droves on the flower stems, giving off that rank odour for a little while before ripening into sweet-perfumed rotundity. At this point it is advisable to cut off the stems, collect all the seeds before they fall off and go everywhere, dry them in paper bags in a warm place indoors and then store them in an old jam jar or suchlike. The spicy seeds are an essential component of curries. They are best dry-toasted briefly in a frying pan before either using them whole or pounding them into a powder in a mortar. As with the leaves, there is no comparison between shop-bought coriander seeds and powder, which both rapidly lose their flavour on many a spice-rack, and the potent punch of the fresh versions. If I was picking one recipe where coriander takes centre stage it would have to be carrot and coriander soup, a cheap and cheerful staple of mine for decades. Yes, it’s recipe time!

Serves 4

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, sliced
450g (1lb) carrots, sliced
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 litre (2pints) vegetable stock
large bunch of fresh coriander, chopped
salt and pepper

1. Heat the oil in a large pot, gently fry the onion and carrot until softening
2. Stir in the ground coriander
3. Add the stock, season, simmer until carrots are tender
4. Off the heat, whizz with a stick-blender, or pulp with a masher, until smooth and thick
5. Stir in the fresh coriander, return to the heat for a few minutes, adjust seasoning, serve.