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Saved from the “Two-Headed Serpent”: The Curious History of Coriander — Part I

Once dubbed the “stinking herbe,” coriander has fallen into and out of favor. Native to the Mediterranean, the herb, both its tangy leaves and earthy, citric seeds, has attracted flavor seekers from Asia to Latin America.

Coriander, whose seeds were unearthed in the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tut-ankh-Amon’s tomb (perhaps an offering), is an ancient herb belonging to the carrot family, a group that includes parsley, anise, dill, fennel, and cumin. These plants have a common characteristic, a cluster of flowers that looks like a “parasol,” food expert Harold McKee observes. Pinkish flowers bloom in umbels on the plant, which can shoot up to two feet. Coriander, which thrives in warm, dry weather, also has the distinctive feathery greens of its species.

“The best coriander, as is generally agreed, is the Egyptian,” wrote Pliny, the Roman botanist. The plant, which grew wild along the Nile, perked up many dishes. Recipes from Alexandria call for squash to be spiced with pepper, coriander seed, and cumin and for grilled fish to be prepared in a sauce made from wine, pepper, raisins, and the herb. The Egyptians also infused wine with garlic and coriander to enhance its potency.

Coriander was an invaluable medicine and tonic. The feverish in Egypt, scholar Lisa Manniche points out, were advised to add it to a lukewarm bath to cool their brows. Coriander, Pliny said, worked as “an antidote for the poison of the two-headed serpent both taken in drink and applied. . . . Spreading sores are also healed by coriander with honey or raisins. . . . [I]t is also taken in drink with rue for cholera. Intestinal parasites are expelled by coriander seed.”

Egypt’s neighbors, the Israelites, were familiar with the herb. The Book of Exodus in the Bible likened coriander to manna: “And the House of Israel called the name thereof Manna; and it was like coriander seed, white.” In Biblical times, the herb was commonly placed on the Passover table.

The Romans warmed to the Egyptian spice. Coriander seeds were already being sold in Pompeii’s shops in the first century A.D. Egypt’s conquerors baked bread fragrant with coriander seeds and prepared a piquant sauce from the herb to go with oysters.

Coriander was also thought to promote health and energy. Roman statesman Cato urged the ill to eat the green leaves to awaken their appetite.

Another ancient empire, the Persian, was a heartland for coriander. The Persians, who revere herbs, invigorate rice dishes and stews with its leaves. A verdant omelet, a “kookoo,” is filled with the aromatic leaves. It is one of the festive dishes of the Persian New Year.

The Chinese borrowed coriander from an old trading partner, the Persians. Yuan cai, or “fragrant vegetable,” was esteemed for its spiritual powers. Eating the seeds with a pure heart was a path to immortality. Anticipating the views of many modern health experts, the Chinese believed that coriander could soothe a turbulent stomach or intestine. It was also used as a remedy for ptomaine poisoning.

In the East, other civilizations were also captivated by coriander. In India, the 19th century English botanist George Watt observed, “the leaves are eaten by natives like a vegetable.” The ground seeds are an essential ingredient in the masalas, the Indian spice blends that add fragrance and heat to chicken, lamb, lentil, and vegetable dishes. Aromatic leaves decorate curries and are blended into chutneys.

Thai cooking would also be unimaginable without coriander. In Thailand, where the herb may have arrived from China, soups and salads are redolent with its leaves. Aurai, the chef at Sala Thai Georgia Avenue, explained to me that coriander seeds are ground into Thai curry pastes. Coriander roots also add their aroma to these spice mixes. Her restaurant, Aurai lamented, must make do with “Chinese coriander” rather than the Thai variety. She misses the superior herb of her homeland.

Next month, in Part II, coriander reaches England with the Roman army and European cooks incorporate the herb in their dishes.


Craving Coriander

On a recent evening, I enjoyed a chicken curry dish strewn with coriander leaves and savored a yogurt-based chutney flavored with the herb at Adams-Morgan’s Jyoti, an Indian restaurant at 2433 18th Street; tel., (202) 518-5892.

Sala Thai Georgia Avenue (3716 Ga. Ave.; tel., 202-629-1643) offers a delightful duck salad fragrant with coriander.