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Coriander Coriandrum sativum (Apiaceae)

May I encourage you to read further? Perhaps skeptical, you might be thinking: “what is there to know about coriander, that it is a spice?” To a journalist, the only worthwhile topic is one already familiar to the public. By this token, coriander fails to qualify. Most people know little about this plant. Which serves as a sad commentary on the lasting impact of education.
As for my credentials, having written a whole book — two actually — on salt, I hope to be trustworthy for a written piece on coriander.
To make it brief, coriander has been a loyal companion of mankind for as long as scholars and scientists have been able to find out, going back to prehistory.

It has always been known as coriander, coriandrum in Latin, which transcribed the Greek name coriandron. Yet earlier than Greek antiquity, Linear B antedated Greek as a written language. Ca. 1450 BC, it recorded the Mycenian language in a syllabic system.
Michael Ventris, an architect and an amateur linguist, first deciphered it between 1951 and 1953. Tablets excavated in 1953 and 1954, from Knossos and Pylos, in the House of the Sphinxes in particular, bear the word ko-ri-ja-da-na for coriander, the direct ancestor to the Greek name. This dates back to the period 1375-1200 BC. A stunning stability over time for a word, any word.

What did Mycenians use coriander for? As a spice, just like us. The foods thus enhanced included fish, fowl, salads, cooked vegetables, and wild edible greens, all seasoned with olive oil. Such permanence in gustatory practice is also remarkable.
Not that Mycenians were the only ones to take advantage of coriander in the kitchen — cosmetics and perfumes are also mentioned in tablets from Pylos. Fifteen desiccated coriander mericarps — the capsules containing the seeds — were found in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B level of the Nahal Hemel Cave in Israel, between 8700 and 6000 BCE (before the Christian era) which may be the oldest archaeological find of coriander. Was it at the time cultivated or imported? We don’t know. But, in general, archeological evidence points to coriander having been one of the earliest cultivars.

Egyptians in Antiquity made abundant use of coriander, not only as a spice, but as folk medicine as well. One might mention in this connexion one of the best known pharaohs. During the period known as the New Kingdom, Tutankhamun died, aged about 18, in 1323 BC. He was felled, it would seem, by cerebral malaria. His tomb contained about half a liter of coriander seeds,. It was used as treatment against fever, effective enough to bury with him for his afterlife.
We know some of the ailments Egyptian physicians used coriander seeds for. From one of the earliest medical treatises, known as the Ebers papyrus, dating to ca. 1550 BC, a couple of centuries before King Tut’s reign. This book of 110 pages contains no fewer than 700 remedies. Coriander seeds are among the first herbs mentioned in it. The Egyptians valued coriander for, among other uses, an all-purpose antalgic.
It did not grow in Egypt however, so one can surmise that it was imported. King Tut belonged to the Eighteenth Dynasty. Archeologists have worked on the wreck of the Ulu Burun ship, thus named because it was found near the Turkish city of the same name. It sank in the late fourteenth century BC, during the time of Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty and the LH IIIB period in Greece. The sunken ship carried some of the finest luxury goods of the Late Bronze Age - a time of intensive trade and travel in the eastern Mediterranean.
Included in its cargo were numerous containers of coriander seeds.

Why research the cluniary tastes of ancient Egyptians — or Chinese, Hottentots or Apaches? Food history and archeology bring these ancestors to life. They underline continuities, not only in human nutrition, but in moral values as well, such as the superstition that one becomes what one ingests. They point to folk wisdom in the combining of food and medicine. They show discontinuities as well, pointing to disasters such as wars, epidemics or enslavement. An ancient cookbook is not only a relic, a historical record, it is also a window into our past.

Easily surmised, since coriander is a near-essential ingredient in curry, India trades heavily in it, as in other spices used in its cuisine. India exports coriander in large enough quantities, kilotons, to qualify it as a commodity. Only pepper, chili, ginger and turmeric are exported by India in greater amounts. And where are the main markets for Indian coriander? Something of a surprise, they are the USA, Germany and Saudi Arabia. Which may qualify the spice as something of a luxury item, since the wealthiest countries come at the top of the consumer list. Or, it simply points to the main destinations of Indian immigrants.
This is not a recent phenomenon. Should we ascribe it to the global economy that occurred towards the end of the previous century? This would be excessively naive.
Globalization occurred much earlier in history. There was, to refer primarily to trade in goods and ideas, the Jesuit-led globalization in the sixteenth century.
To focus on coriander indicates however that globalization set in much earlier. For instance, it was exported heavily from Java, to China primarily, between the tenth and the mid-thirteenth centuries. As we saw, Egypt was importing coriander from the Medierranean during the XVIIIth kingdom, about two-and-a half millennia earlier.
Coming back to India and to the taste of Indians for coriander as a spice, let me state the following conjecture, in the form of a question: did Alexander the Great bring coriander to India, from its origins in the southeastern Mediterranean? If true, various regions of India, with the appropriate climate for a warm weather European annual, began cultivating the plant after the Alexandrine expedition. It is highly probable that indeed coriander arrived in India, together with Greco-Buddhic art, with the armies of Alexander.

We are accustomed to plants of uniform aspect. The leaves of a birch tree, the petals of a poppy, the cones of a conifer are all the same. The coriander plant deviates, as if it can not make up its mind. The leaves vary in shape. Upper leaves on the flowery stem are slender and feathery, finely divided and fern-like. The lower leaves, broadly lobed, are Italian parsley-like. Moreover, the plant in common parlance comes under two separate names. Only the seeds go by the ancient name, coriander. The strong-scented foliage is known as cilantro.
This second name, of Spanish origin, also derives from the Latin coriandrum. While on the topic of etymology, there is a tradition, even though the lexicologists do not condone it, suggesting that the word coriander descends from the Greek koris, i.e., bedbug, for the purported resemblance of the odor of its fresh leaves to crushed bedbugs, or bedbug-infested bed sheets.
Which brings up a split in the general population between cilantro-haters and cilantro-eaters. The former might be due to a genetic trait. Indeed, my wife and her sister, who otherwise differ in their tastes, share this dislike. They are in good company, Julia Child hated cilantro with a passion. This comes about, arguably, from cilantro giving off a soapy smell together with a pleasant aromatic green note — the latter imparted by 2-dodecenal, an aldehyde. The good news is that cilantro-based pesto — it antedated in the
Mediterranean the basil-based pesto familiar to us — is devoid of the turn-away smell. The pleasant aromatic green note in the cilantro aroma, reminiscent of cut grass, stems I believe from (Z)-3-hexenal, an aldehyde molecule.

Coming back to Julia Child, she of course had predecessors aplenty who also wrote cookbooks. Cookbooks throughout the centuries mention coriander as an ingredient in their recipes.
In Persia — today’s Iran — during the first centuries of the Moslem period, coriander was used both as medication and as spice in dishes. The Bundahišn , which dates back to about the 8th century, mentions coriander as a vegetable (tarrag) eaten with bread. Abū Manṣūr Mowaffaq Heravī, in the 10th century, author of the oldest treatise in Persian on medical matters, writes of its benefits as a drug.
In Roman times, it was not a Julia Puella — puella is child in Latin — who wrote the best known cookbook, but a wealthy gourmet named Apicius (50-117 CE) during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. His De re coquinaria includes quite a few recipes calling for coriander.
Do we know of earlier uses of coriander in cooking? Assuredly. The archeologist André Parrot, in excavating the city of Mari, also in Mesopotamia — present-day Iraq — found numerous baked clay tablets bearing cuneiform writing. These date to paleo- babylonian times. Between 3000 and 600 BCE, Different types of sweet confections were made, such as a preparation of flour and oil to which dates, nuts and different spices including cumin and coriander were added. We know this from lists of ingredients sent to the cooks at Mari.
The Sumerian diet at the end of the third millennium before the Christian era (BCE) included coriander. During the Third Dynasty of Ur (2100-2000 BCE), Sumerians made extensive use of coriander as a condiment to flavor their dishes. Between four and five centuries subsequently, the Yale Babylonian tablet number 4644, a cookbook in cuneiform script dating to about 1600 BCE, i.e., during the Old Babylonian period, includes coriander in several of its 25 recipes for stews and soups.
I am not trying to compete for the Guinness Book of Records with the earliest known use of coriander as foodstuff or flavor, but it probably features among some of the earliest known written documents.

Back to cilantro and to the more generally pleasing component in its aroma, the aldehyde evoking greenery and recently-cut grass. The same molecule enters the composition of the smell and flavor of strawberries.
Which brings up the current vogue among chefs and adepts of molecular gastronomy. The idea is to compose dishes based on the pairing of ingredients having a chemical in common. You have got it, to the likely horror of many, gourmet restaurants are about to treat us to recipes combining strawberries and cilantro.
Which serves to show that coriander not only boasts a rich past, but of a luxurious present.