Restaurants in The InTowner
The InTowner
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Saved from the “Two-Headed Serpent”: The Curious History of Coriander — Part II

Coriander arrived with the Roman armies that invaded Britain. English cooks adopted the spice, seasoning steak, kidney, and oyster pie with it. Bakers made bread fragrant with coriander seeds.

The English and other Europeans sought new ways to capture the alluring aroma. After banquets, hosts offered their guests confits, sugar-coated coriander seeds and other spices, as digestifs. The French extracted oil from the seeds to make Eau de Carnes, which served both as liqueur and cologne.

Medieval Europe had fallen in love with coriander, cumin, saffron, cloves, and other Oriental spices. Chefs imitated the spice-laden recipes recorded in the cooking manuals of the Arab empire, whose leaders ruled from Baghdad between 750 and 1250 A.D. “Put the meat in the oil . . . with fine-milled dry coriander, and fry lightly until browned,” one recipe read. “Then cover with water, adding green coriander leaves, cinnamon bark.”

By the end of the 17th century Europe started to sour on spices. Coriander, once so revered, was now the object of disdain. In 1597, the English herbalist John Gerard called it a “very stinking herbe” with leaves of “venomous qualities.” Writing about the same time, the French writer Olivier de Serres was similarly dismissive: “[I]ts leaves, rubbed between the hands, smelled like stink bugs.”

Commentators, anthropologist Helen Leach argues, seized on the origin of the herb’s name to disparage it. Coriandrum, its Latin name, came from the Greek word for bug, koris. A 19th century vegetable manual made the connection between the offensive odor of the spice and its etymology explicit: “Some writers say the leaves are used for seasoning but this statement seems odd, as all the green parts of the plant exhale a very strong odour of the wood-bug, whence the Greek name of the plant.” But was this the reason the Greeks and Romans used the word. More likely, anthropologist Leach contends, those who already disliked the spice were looking for a justification.

Modern cookery authors have gone even further, likening the smell of coriander to that of the bedbug.  Margaret Visser notes that “the green leaves of coriander are said to smell like squashed bed-bugs.” Herbalist Allen Patterson was struck by how similar the two fragrances were: “. . . the herb’s sweet, cloying smell is as close as one is likely to get to that traditionally distinctive odour.”

In a television interview in 2002, author Julia Child added her voice to the chorus of disgust. She told Larry King: “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me.” Asked if she would ever order it, Child responded: “Never. I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”

In a recent article, food science expert Harold McGee contends that the coriander revulsion may not be so irrational after all. Molecules responsible for the plant’s scent, he points out, are also found in bugs and in soaps and lotions.

A new generation of cooks and diners has rediscovered the delights of coriander, or should I say, cilantro, its now-popular name. Cilantro evokes the inimitable fragrances of Thai and Mexican food, not the unpleasant stench the older name conjured up.


Craving Coriander

The recently opened Kabob House (2029 P St., NW; tel., 331-3777) offers its customers two kinds of coriander chutney (Gashneez, the Dari word) to go with its tasty kebab and rice dishes. One is a vinegary sauce flavored with coriander; the other is a yogurt-based flavoring.

The Columbia Heights Mexican eatery, Taqueria Districto Federal (3463 14th St., NW; tel.,  276-7331), serves an avocado salsa, spiced with chili and coriander, with chips. Its excellent tacos are garnished with tangy cilantro.