Coriandrum sativum or cilantro belongs to the Apiaceae family and is a fast-developing, sweet-smelling herb that grows in cooler temperatures. Coriander actually describes the entire herbal plant inclusive of the stems, leaves, seeds and roots. In reality it is actually two treats in one, the leaves are known as cilantro (Chinese parsley) while the tiny seeds are normally called coriander. The entire plant is edible. The leaves give a musky, citrusy and some even claim it to be “soapy” flavour to Mexican, Thai and Chinese cooking. They are also used in Indian dishes and chutneys. The seeds deliver a taste of orange peel or lemony flavour and are used in traditional dishes in India.
The herb has gained more popularity recently due to all the health benefits it provides. The leaves including the stems are commonly used in salads, sandwiches or made into teas and juices. In Southeast Asia the roots are dug, chopped and used as additions to salty pickled condiments.
History of Cilantro & Coriander Seeds
Although not much is known about the origins of the coriander plant, it does have a very long history extending back many thousands of years. It is believed to be a native of the Mediterranean and portions of south-western Asia. Folklore claims to have it growing in the hanging gardens of Babylon to provide fragrance over 3,000 years ago, while experts believe it was used as far back as 5000 B.C.E.
Some shrunken mericarps (parts of the flower) have been found in the Nahal Hemel Cave in Israel and this is possibly the oldest coriander find. A small quantity of coriander mericarps have also been recovered from Tutankhamen’s tomb, and since the plant does not grow in the wild in Egypt, it is assumed that it was purposefully cultivated by ancient Egyptians. It also appears that the herb has been cultivated in Greece since the second millennium B.C.E. A tablet discovered at the Pylos, refers to coriander being cultivated for production of perfumes. It seems as if the plant served dual purpose: the seeds were used as a spice, while the leaves for their flavour. There is also some archaeological evidence to back this up as large quantities of coriander were recovered from an Early Bronze Age site.
The Romans introduced coriander to northern Europe. A writer of the times, quotes in his works, a first century B.C.E. Roman writer suggesting “combining (coriander, seeds) with cumin and vinegar, rubbed into meat as a preservative”. He also mentions that ancient Chinese believed the seeds to provide immortality, while it was used as love potion in the Middle Ages.
Coriander is also talked about in the Bible. When talking of God’s gift to the children of Israel in the Book of Exodus, it says “it was like coriander seed, white.” It is most likely that the Israelites learned of coriander in Egypt. The Roman writer Pliny also mentions that the best coriander came from there.
Coriander was written about by a British monk in the thirteenth century and mentioned in the oldest British piece on gardening in 1440. In the sixteenth century the herbalist William Turner claimed the seeds were useful in curing St. Anthony’s fire, an agonizing skin disease. According to the writer Roy Genders, King James II of England had special honey water made with coriander seeds. He further states “[Coriander water] is a pleasing after-shave lotion and takes any inflammation from the skin.”
Coriander plants were one of the first herbs to be grown by the American colonists in the New World. The French used distilled coriander to cook up a type of liquor. Now cilantro is cultivated in tropical as well as subtropical countries around the world.
Benefits of Cilantro & Coriander Seeds
Coriander has been used medicinally throughout history. It was used to provide relief from insomnia and anxiety in Iran, and has been employed as a diuretic in traditional Indian medicine. Now its benefits are understood better and recognized even more.
Being a good source of iron, phytonutrients and flavonoids, it protects the body against a number of ailments. Its juice aids in treating dysentery, indigestion, colitis and hepatitis. It lowers blood sugar levels, averts nausea and helps with digestion. When combined with a pinch of turmeric powder it becomes a remedy for pimples. Linalol is an oil in coriander that detoxifies the liver and builds appetite. It also acts as a blood thinner, thus preventing clots that can lead to strokes.
Boiled coriander seeds, consumed as a tea reduces menstrual flow and fluctuating mood swings. The plant has antibacterial, fungicidal and anthelmintic properties (expels parasitic worms from the body) which can be used to improve oral health, cut down on digestive spasms and eliminate abdominal pain. The antimicrobial compounds aid in curing small pox. One of its most recognized properties is its ability to fight off Salmonella, a bacteria with the potential to threaten life. The antifungal properties also help to treat dry skin, eczema and other skin ailments. Its heating, analgesic characteristics help in treating rheumatism and pain in bones. The seeds are a good source of fatty acids and proteic materials which are useful in bringing cholesterol levels down.
Cilantro is among the limited number of herbs employed for heavy metal detoxification. Drinking its juice can help detoxify you of metals like mercury, aluminium and lead to name a few. Removal of the heavy metals aids in prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss. The plant also has a sedative and muscle relaxing effect.
Coriander is very good source of dietary fibre. Just a hundred grams of the seeds deliver 41.9 grams of fibre (with same amount of leaves delivering 2.9 grams). Most of this is in the form of insoluble fibre that helps to enhance bulk in the body and keep food moving through the digestive tract and ease constipation. One hundred grams of cilantro also contains a little over two grams of protein and 3.6 grams of carbohydrates.
Both the seeds and leaves are a good source of minerals like copper, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, manganese and magnesium. The plant is also rich source of a number of vitamins like vitamin A, B6, C, E, K along with niacin, thiamin and riboflavin.
Additional compounds found in abundant amounts in the seeds include fatty acids like petroselinic acid, linoleic acid (omega 6), oleic acid, and palmitic acid. Essential oils found in the seeds include linalool (68%), a-pinene (10%), geraniol, camphene, and terpine. Fresh coriander leaves are a rich source of carotenoids. A 125 ml serving of fresh coriander leaf juice supplies nearly as much beta-caretene as 250 ml of broccoli juice.
Uses of Cilantro & Coriander Seeds
The popularity of cilantro and coriander seeds has increased tremendously in recent years. Some people claim they find the smell of fresh leaves distasteful, but they are in the minority. Those who are not bothered by the aroma consume cilantro leaves in salads, salsas, and layered onto all types of sandwiches. Cilantro is a vital topping of Thailand’s favourite noodle dish. Additionally it can be used as a topping on rice pilaffs, spicy soups, beans and as an accent to chilli.
Coriander seeds can be roasted in a warm dry pan until you can smell the nutty fragrance. Roasting only takes a few minutes, but releases an amazing scent and essential oils. Once roasted, the seeds can be roughly ground with a mortar and pestle and used in a variety of dishes. Just a few seeds are sufficient for curry dishes, lentils, stews, mushrooms, rice, and any vegetable dishes of choice.
The leaves are a good addition to homemade pot-pourri. A few crushed seeds added to rose petals, lavender, or rosemary provide a subtle lingering perfume to any sitting room, office or bathroom. Oils from seeds are used in various commercial herbal medicines and as a flavouring in gin, vermouth, tobacco, and liqueurs.
According to some studies the antioxidants in corianderpostpone and even prevent food from spoiling when it has been seasoned with the herb1. Both seeds and leaves contain antioxidants, but leaves have a more pronounced effect. Another study found that cilantro leaves are effective in fighting against Salmonella2.
According to documentation coriander has been used to treat type 2 diabetes. A study using mice found that extract of coriander showed both insulin-releasing and insulin-type activity3. It has also been found that coriander seeds lower the total cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They increase the levels of high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol). It is believed that this is due to liver increasing production of bile and speeding up of the breakdown of cholesterol into less harmful components4.