Monday, May 25, 2009

Coriander vs. Cilantro

The other day my son sent up a tweet indicating he'd just learned that coriander and cilantro are the same thing. To me: surprise (how'd I fail him!) and memory trigger.

The first time I wondered about the connection between coriander and cilantro, I was following a recipe from a cookbook with some regional slant. It called for one of them and offered a useless 'clarification'. So, say, it read like this: coriander (cilantro) -- or the other way around.

Unless you already know what the connection is, that parenthetical sends you off on a research jaunt. Even if you've used both coriander and cilantro before. No, sorry, particularly if you've used them both before.

Most cooks -- and I include here anyone required by circumstance to do more than boil an occasional egg or reheat something in the micro -- first encounter coriander as an ingredient in pumpkin pie or gingerbread; thus, it is associated with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, stuff like that. Then again, the other common use for coriander is in curries, in which case it seems to go with cumin and chilies as well as several of the previously mentioned items. What we usually call coriander is purchased in jars, as a ground power; it comes from the seeds of the plant.

Cilantro, by contrast, often comes to our attention nowadays in salsas, although I first discovered it when I was served seviche. Though apparently not a defining ingredient, all the seviches I encountered in Central American in the 1960s carried the distinct and recognizable favor of cilantro. Sort of a cross between citrus and soap. As many people do, I found it took some getting used to, but once I'd acquired the taste, I was hooked. You might be amazed how much cilantro I go through in my kitchen. You buy it in the produce section, between the parsley and the watercress.

Never -- and we are talking decades here -- had I made any connection between the two items until that fateful cookbook and I crossed paths.

The next part of this story requires some -- excuse the expression -- back story. See, growing up I was pretty interested in food and, by extension, cooking. Similarly, I did such things as: learn to sew, dust and vacuum like a dynamo, change more than a few diapers, practice planting a garden and develop significant typing skills. I bet you can see where that’s going!

Fast forward to life in the city as a liberated woman: assuming the bank account will support it, I pay to have my skirts shortened, my house cleaned, all my vegetables trucked in from elsewhere. I prefer my parties catered. And god forbid anyone discover I can type!

So, while my family-of-origin believes I'm a crackerjack cook, it doesn't surprise me when my family-of-procreation sneers at my domestic and distaff skills. Hey, my bad -- or maybe not even.

Add to that a few ethnic issues (blog for another day) and some subtle problems involving blended families, and we find my cooking cred with the people I sometimes call 'my kids' was and remains low, low, very low.

So the next chapter makes perfect sense.

Having a female teen-ager in the household at the time, I must have shared my coriander-cilantro discovery with that likely candidate. A few days later, I was informed that I was ... misinformed. “Faye said coriander and cilantro are not related.” Faye -- another Mom in the neighborhood, but also model-beautiful Jewess possessed of the first and only Sub-zero frig I've ever seen in a residential kitchen. Well, what do you know.

I know I didn't crack open my Joy of Cooking, 1967 edition, to page 531, where the connection is actually explained. Nor did I attempt to persuade in anyway. And anyone who has had a teen-age step-daughter will understand my thinking there.

Faye and I, of course, talked about it a few days later and laughed when she realized the connection.

But I somehow forgot to tell the boys!


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