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What? Coriander is Cilantro? It’s Dhaniya if You’re Indian

What? Coriander is Cilantro? It’s Dhaniya if You’re Indian

It is hard enough to get the the Hindi name correct for spices, but I was surprised that I somehow failed to make the connection between coriander and cilantro. When I think of cilantro, I think of fresh, delicate sprigs, adorning my tacos. When I think of dhaniya, I recall my mother garnishing a beautiful bowl of golden yellow dal with bright green leaves. And coriander brings to mind one of the spices that I couldn’t decipher from ground cumin. “Mom, is this dhaniya or jeera?” I ask. “It’s both, that masala is a mix of the two, coriander and cumin,” she explains. No wonder my cooking has, excuse my poor language, sucked. “What? I’ve been using it thinking it was pure dhaniya!” At least the dry spice and green leaf have the same name, dhaniya, in Hindi. And to the novice, (ahem, people other than me) ground cumin and coriander may actually be difficult to distinguish, especially if they have been aging in your cupboard. (Note: Aging is for fine wine, cheese, and George Clooney, not spices.) Thanks to my little adventure at Lhasa Karnak, I now have access to fresh, whole, coriander. I feel like a weirdo when I do it, but I sometimes go home, open my little jar filled with brown seeds that look like mini Chinese lanterns, and pop one directly into my mouth. That’s how good the good stuff is. Then I pick up the old Ziplock filled with faded greenish looking seeds, turn my nose down at them, roll my eyes back, and throw them down with disgust. (To be fair, they are actually two different varieties [brown ball, vs. greenish brown football shape].) Why I’m still holding on to that bag, I do not know. One thing is for sure, if the coriander you have does not smell rich and aromatic, it is likely made from unripe coriander, or is simply too old.

So while cilantro leaves are often used as a garnish in Indian, Mediterranean, and Mexican cooking, the cilantro fruit (often referred to as coriander seed) is used primarily as a key dry spice in Indian cooking. The flavor can be described as warm and nutty with citrus undertones. It is NOT hot. None of the non-chili based dry spices are inherently hot. A common misconception is that Indian spices are hot. Indian cooking is only as hot as the chilies you put in it. The ideal way to use coriander seeds is by roasting them in a bit of oil, then grounding them into a powder for immediate use. Pre-ground coriander, while often used, will lose its flavor over time.

Cilantro comes from the parsley family. The use of coriander seeds date back to Ancient Greece with some reports of it being used as early as 5,000 B.C.  The seeds have been used in Iran to treat insomnia and anxiety. In Indian cooking, it serves to aid digestion. It is also used to help with a variety of stomach issues, and even given to colicky babies in gripe water. Coriander aids in preserving food as an anti-bacterial agent.

So call it what you will, coriander, along with cumin and turmeric, is one of the key masalas in Indian cooking. You’ll find the trio in many dishes. If you’re interested in trying it out, I encourage you to find fresh, whole seeds. Just remember, it might also be known as seeds from Chinese parsley!


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