One warm, sunny afternoon during my college days, a friend and I were stand-ing on one side of the Tank Bund in Hyderabad, when a savvy street vendor handed us, fresh and hot from a pot of bubbling oil, a plate of gol gappas (small golden puffs). Dipping a puff in spiced water, I carefully popped it into my mouth. Aah! Instantly, the frail crust gave way, flooding my mouth with cool, cilantro-flavored water with traces of other spices both sweet and sour. Soon we were on a roll, wolfing the plum-sized puffs one-by-one, till we had our fill and our senses were totally satiated. Gol gappa is a memorable snack whose taste still lingers on my tongue.
Was it the taste of the cilantro—kotmir, as I first knew it—that added character to this light snack? To me it seemed so. This versatile herb adds to the flavor of most Indian cooking. Fresh or dried cilantro leaves can be added to soups, stews, curries, stir-fries, vegetables, fish, and chicken, yogurt-based dishes, dips, rice-based pilafs, chutneys, and sauces. No party snack of samosas, dhoklas, bhelpuri, or chaat can be complete without fresh, green chutney made from cilantro.
There is one sight from India that is ingrained in my memory. This is of the ingenious woman who arrives on the front door each morning with a basket filled with fresh greens—saag, mint, spinach, mustard. As a bonus, she tosses a sprig of cilantro to the purchases. “Bouni, Amma,” she explains, grateful for the first transaction of the day.
IN THE KITCHEN GARDEN
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum L.) is a hardy annual belonging to the carrot or parsley family (Apiaceae). As children, one activity we enjoyed immensely was to crush coriander seeds under the soles of a Hawaii chappal, which speeds up the germination. Plant four inches apart. The plants quickly grow to two feet. Harvest the leaves before the plants bolt and go to seed. It is necessary to plant every two weeks in summer to have a continuous supply of cilantro. The stems and leaves of the plant are aromatic, while the coriander seed is a useful kitchen spice and herbal medicine.
The Chinese, who have used it for 2,000 years, recognize cilantro’s extraordinary appeal and outstanding flavor. They call cilantro “fragrant greens,” use it in stir-fries, soups, and other dishes, and boil the whole plant—leaves, roots, and stems—and serve it as a steaming hot, savory vegetable. Cilantro is also used widely in cuisines of North African countries, the Mediterranean, India, Portugal, Mexico, Thailand, Morocco, among others, and the United States where it is fast becoming an indispensable herb. This is mostly due to the influx of Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Indian immigrants whose cuisines have made this aromatic herb a fitting partner in the kitchen, encouraging markets to feature it along with parsley, fresh basil, dill, sage, rosemary, and other fragrant herbs.
Interesting tales abound on the power of this herb. The mythical Arabian princess Scheherazade described coriander as an aphrodisiac in the stories later collected as The Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Experts believe its use dates back to at least 5,000 B.C. References to coriander can be found in Sanskrit writings, and the seeds were placed in Pharaohs’ tombs, presumably to prevent indigestion in the afterlife. Coriander even rates a mention in the Old Testament (Exodus, chapter 16, verse 31): “And the house of Israel called the name there of Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” Cilantro tea is also known to settle an upset stomach and is classified as an antispasmodic.
My own favorite recipes include the good old kotmir chutney layered on bread with boiled potatoes and cut cucumber and tomatoes on top, a no-fuss school lunch. Another is rice pilaf with cilantro chutney for flavor. In a large bowl, add oil and fry onions and whole spices, add two tablespoons of this chutney, fry and then add Basmati rice to cook. It has a distinct flavor and tastes delicious too. And lastly, have you tried cilantro in the all-time favorite pakora (fritters)? Here is a recipe.
4 cups fresh cilantro
2 cups chickpea flour
1 teaspoon ajwain seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 pinch asafetida
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt to taste
¼ cup water
2 pinches baking soda
oil for frying
Wash, clean and discard the larger stems from the cilantro. Put them in a shallow bowl. Add all the spices into the flour and mix well. Add half of the flour mix to the cilantro and mix well. Then put in the rest of the flour and stir. Now add the water, a bit at a time, mixing constantly with your hands until you have a thick, sticky paste. Sprinkle the baking soda over this paste and mix lightly. Set aside for 15-20 minutes.
Heat oil for deep-frying. Don’t let the oil smoke. Drop a teaspoon-sized amount of pakora mix into the oil until the surface is covered. Stir and turn the pakoras until they are lightly brown on all sides, about 4-5 minutes. Drain and serve warm.
Nirmala Garimella writes from Lexington, MA.