There are some people out there—otherwise perfectly sophisticated, well-travelled and open-minded individuals—who have an aversion for the herb coriander.
Shocking, I know.
“Smells bad,” “Tastes like soap,” are some of the kinder things that have been said by the members of this group.
For the rest of us, however, there is no substitute for the fragrant leaf that brings just the right amount of lemony freshness to a heavily spiced dish.
It might surprise most coriander-haters to know that as ubiquitous as the herb is in Asian cuisines, it is native to southeastern Europe.1
Five-thousand-year-old documents found in the Aegean mentioning the herb ko-ri-ja-do-no are among the earliest records we have of coriander use in human civilization.
By the time of Classical Greece, cooks were growing coriander in their kitchen gardens.2 And the Romans liked coriander so much that conquering Roman troops brought the herb with them as they marched through central Europe, introducing it to what is today Germany and the Netherlands.3 (One Roman cookbook describes a recipe for a coriander pâté featuring coriander seeds and coriander leaf.)
In fact, as late as the sixteenth century, European recipes still called for generous amounts of coriander.4
And then, suddenly, everything changed. In 1597, the botanist John Gerard referred to green coriander as a “very stinking herbe” with leaves of venomous quality. It became the prevailing sentiment, as gastronomes across the continent banded together to do the same.
What causes large segments of society to suddenly stop eating a food or plant that they had previously enjoyed without reservations?
Extrapolating from our modern era, I can only think of the sudden backlash against fast food for health and environmental reasons. But we know that coriander continued to be used for medicinal purposes till the nineteenth century, so that couldn’t have been the reason.
All through the following centuries up to the modern era, coriander continued its dissent into ignominy. At some point, food writers began to speculate whether the Roman writer Pliny the Elder had dubbed the plant “coriandrum for its ‘buggy’ smell, coris being a bug; or perhaps because the young seed has an uncanny resemblance to Cimex lectularius, the European bed-bug.”5 Although there is absolutely no record of Pliny having done this, nonetheless, at some point this opinion became orthodoxy, even making it into The New Oxford Book of Food Plants
Coriander, once a native son, had now become a pariah: a weird food that only foreigners liked. Irma Rombauer assumed dismissively in Joy of Cooking that few Americans would be familiar with a plant known only in Chinese and Indian cuisines “where its somewhat fetid odor and taste are much treasured.”
According to the food historian Helen M. Leach, this change in popular tastes coincided with the dissolution of medieval European cuisine, which could in turn be traced to the Columbian Exchange, the widespread transfer of plants and vegetables from the New World to the old one. As a result, coriander—associated with the old ways of cooking—suddenly became unfashionable.
It took four centuries for “the stinking herbe” to be rehabilitated and accepted back onto Western tables. Clever marketers changed its name to appeal to food snobs. In the age of globalization, coriander was now cilantro, Chinese parsley, persil arabe; the exotic names conferring a certain worldliness on the herb and the cooks who would use it.