What Is Coriander?
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Posted on 13 Jul 2017 21:43

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The term coriander produces some confusion for novice cooks. Is it an herb or a spice? A plant or a seed? It is all of these. The confusion, however, comes from how we use the term from a culinary standpoint versus a botanical one.

Coriander versus Cilantro?

Coriander is, technically, the same things as the herb we know as cilantro. In fact, the scientific name for the plant itself is Coriander sativum. Cilantro, as well, is sometimes called Chinese Parsley. The plant is in the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family, otherwise known as the parsley family (or carrot or celery family). Therefore, it is possible for the terms coriander, cilantro, and Chinese parsley to all refer to the same herb. Cilantro is also easily confused with Italian flat leaf parsley (Eryngium foetidum).

While we Americans call the herb cilantro, British folk stick to coriander.

Although Coriandrum sativum is native to Southern Europe, we got our term cilantro from Latin America, where the herb was readily adopted. There, a native herb (Eryngieum foetidium), also in the parsley family, and called culantro was already widely used when coriander was introduced, and since coriander had a similar taste to "culantro" it was quickly accepted, leading to the similar name. It should be noted, however, that in some countries the term culantro might refer to cilantro.

As for the name coriander, it is thought to have derived from a Greek word, koris, meaning "bedbug." Why? They thought the plant smelled like the insect. I don't know about you, but I never want to be able to smell any bedbugs.1

So that explains the two different names for the same herb or plant.

Cilantro herb or coriander leaves

Coriander leaves or "cilantro herb" in America.

Cilantro herb or coriander leaves

Coriander leaves or "cilantro herb" in America.

Cilantro Haters

Before I move on, I should mention that while cilantro or coriander is related to parsley, its taste is much stronger. I've already written about super tasters or PROP tasters in my article explaining bitterness. Super tasters, who dislike bitter tastes, will likely dislike cilantro, and many other vegetables. However, cilantro has a hater's club all its own, owed to what many describe as a "soapy" taste. Sensitivity to this soapy flavor is a genetic trait. It is more widespread in Caucasians and East Asians (17%) than in Latin Americans, Asians, and Arabians.

This perception of a soapy taste is due to the presences of certain aldehydes in the leaves which are structurally similar to some compounds in soaps. It happens that they are also similar to certain compounds produced by bugs as defensive weapons. Some cilantro haters have claimed that the taste of the plant reminded them of bed bugs. I'm not even going to ponder this, but we can see the bedbug connection, once again. Those who hate cilantro, like the people who submit their Haikus to the site IHateCilantro.com, are more sensitive to these "soapy" compounds.2,3

Others, like myself, love cilantro. Interestingly, the seeds don't cause as much polarization as the plant portion. So, people who hate cilantro may not hate coriander. Confused?

Cilantro the Herb and Coriander the Spice

I know I've taken a long route to get to the central confusion but I wanted you to understand why these terms are so interchangeable. In America, we use the term cilantro for the leaves of the plant, considered an herb. We reserve the term coriander for the SEEDS, considered a spice. So, in culinary terms, cilantro is an herb and coriander is a spice. They both come from the same plant.

coriander seeds

The spice coriander

coriander seeds

The spice coriander

The flavor of coriander and cilantro are really quite different and coriander will tend to be used in higher amounts. In fact, it is widely used in food formulations and has a fruity-citrus, piney flavor. It is, of course, quite bitter. Cilantro has a bitter and pungent flavor and, yes, it has a soapy thing going on. We have to realize that even those who like cilantro can sometimes detect the flavor which haters identify as soapy. I can. It just doesn't bother me. I kind of like it. This would be because I am less sensitive to it and don't detect it as strongly. However, if you hate cilantro, don't assume you'll hate coriander. I think it is safe to say that coriander is one of the favorite cooking spices known to man.

1. "Cilantro - Coriandrum Sativum." WorldCrops. UMass Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, n.d. Web. 13 July 2017. <https://worldcrops.org/crops/cilantro>.
2. Jahn, Reinhard, Ole H. Petersen, Thomas Gudermann, Stefan Offermanns, Roland Lill, Susan G. Amara, and Bernd Nilius. Reviews of Physiology, Biochemistry and Pharmacology, Vol. 164. N.p.: Springer International, 2013.
3. Provost, Joseph J., Keri L. Colabroy, Brenda S. Kelly, and Mark A. Wallert. The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry behind Food and Cooking. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2016.
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