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Coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.) is an annual herb that belongs to the carrot family. Both the seeds and leaves of the plant are used in various cuisines of the world. The coriander plant yields both the fresh green herb and the spice seed. Green coriander (also called cilantro and Chinese parsley) is probably one of the most commonly-used flavorings in the world. The strong fragrance of coriander leaves is quite different from parsley’s, but the leaves are used in the same way as parsley in tropical cuisines of the world. When ripe, the seeds have a distinctive sweet musty aroma that has been valued over the centuries. They look like tiny beads with yellowish brown color and a distinctive fragrance and a pleasant and mildly pungent taste.
Although cilantro and coriander seeds are most often associated with the cuisines of Mexico and Asia, the herb originated in the southern reaches of the Mediterranean. Coriander has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back 3000 years. It was cultivated in ancient Egypt for both medicinal and culinary purposes. The ancient Hebrews originally used cilantro root as the bitter herb in the symbolic Passover meal. Coriander seeds were used in southern Europe since classical times. The Romans themselves used coriander with cumin and vinegar as a preservative which they rubbed into meat. Ancient Greeks and Romans took it to Europe and the Arabs introduced it to India, China and Southeast Asian countries.
Coriander seed is used in whole or ground forms. Use of coriander seeds is more widespread in Europe compared to coriander leaves, the one exception being Portuguese cuisine. Portuguese settlers learned to use it from native Africans. It is used to flavor liqueurs in Russia and Scandinavia, as well as being an important flavoring agent in gin production. The seeds are also used (both whole and ground) in baking, sausages, pickles, candies, sauces and soups. Cilantro and coriander are fairly recent arrivals to the American kitchen. Coriander is the more familiar, used in gingerbread, cookies, yeast breads, sausages, stews, and chicken dishes.
It is used in Middle Eastern, southern Asian, as well as Latin American cuisines. In India, both coriander seeds and leaves are extensively used in curries and spice mixes. It is popular in Chinese cuisine. In Thailand even the root of the plant is used. Although it is popular in the rest of Asia, it is practically unknown in Japan. Coriander is good for the digestive system, reducing flatulence, stimulating the appetite and aiding the secretion of gastric juices.
Bitter Gourd (Melon) Theeyal
As the name suggests, bitter melons have a strong bitter taste. To mellow this taste, first cook the pieces with salt and turmeric for five minutes and drain. It will lose some of the bitterness. This vegetable, momordica charanita, is rich in minerals and vitamins. It is popular in both Indian and Chinese cuisines. The Chinese variety has softer ribs than the Indian variety.
5 or 6 medium sized bitter gourd (or Chinese bitter melon)
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable, corn or canola oil
1 cup freshly grated coconut or
3/4th cup of dried unsweetened coconut flakes
1tablespoon coriander seeds
4 dry red chili peppers (reduce for milder taste)
1 cup thinly sliced shallots or onions
Juice from a small lime-sized piece of tamarind
or 1-teaspoon tamarind paste mixed with a cup of water
For seasoning and garnish:
1tablespoon vegetable, corn or canola oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
A few springs of curry leaves
1 red pepper, halved
Wash and cut the bitter melons into thin rounds. Boil them with salt and turmeric for five minutes and drain. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat and fry the grated coconut flakes until they start turning golden brown. Add the coriander seeds and red chili pepper to the fried coconut and stir well. Fry for another two to three minutes until the coriander seeds are well toasted. Remove from the stove and let it cool. Heat ½ tablespoon of oil in a small skillet and pan-fry the shallots/onions until they are slightly browned. Grind the spices, toasted coconut and shallots/onions with just enough water to make a very smooth, thick paste.
Heat ½ tablespoon of oil in a heavy bottomed pot and sauté the cooked bitter melon pieces for three to four minutes. Add the ground spice and coconut masala, salt and a cup of water and stir gently. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for six to eight minutes. Add tamarind and cook for another five minutes. Heat the remaining oil and add the mustard seeds to it. When they start spluttering, add the curry leaves and red pepper. Pour over the cooked curry. This curry will have fairly thick gravy. Serve with plain, boiled white rice.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is working on a cookbook about the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala against a backdrop of cultural and culinary history. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.