Medicinal herb, divisive flavouring, aphrodisiac or indispensable ingredient– coriander has been a lot of things to a lot of different people over the course of time.
The seeds, leaves and stalks of Coriandum sativum have been cultivated for at least 7000 years in various forms and for various purposes, but unlike many other plants, there is no consensus on where coriander is native to. An educated guess would place coriander'͛s origins on the European side of the Mediterranean Sea, but the plant seems to have been particularly important to the Egyptians; coriander seeds have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and many hundreds of years later, Pliny the Elder wrote of how the highest quality coriander available in his time still came from Egypt.
Ancient herbalists were thought to recommend coriander seeds as an aphrodisiac, and in traditional Chinese medicine, the seeds are employed to treat stomach aches and nausea.
Whilst its effectiveness as any sort of medicine is no longer believed with any sort of scientific seriousness, coriander's incredibly diverse culinary uses have continuously developed over the past millennia. Its introduction to Britain arrived far, far earlier than you might expect– as early as the late Bronze Age, settlers were using coriander seed to enliven their basic grain porridges and gruels.
Despite this early introduction into British cuisine, in the modern era we most closely associate coriander with Latin American and South Asian cooking– the conquistadors introduced the plant from Spain, and it quickly became an integral part of Mexican, Colombian, Venezuelan and related cuisines. In Asia, however, the process was far more gradual, as coriander made its way east with traders and settlers, in a reversal of the common Asia-to-Europe route for the spice trade of that era.
Now, coriander leaves are particularly important to north-eastern Chinese cooking, in lamb soups and dried bean curd salads, and form the backbone of Mexican cuisine. The seeds, however, are of particular interest in India, where they're commonly ground into a masala and used to flavour curries, stir fries, and dosas.
Modern research has suggested that, if you don't like the taste of coriander, there may be a hereditary element at play. A genetic testing company found two variants in olfactory receptor genes that were strongly associated with either enjoying coriander, or tasting a 'soapy' or unpleasant flavour in the herb.
However, if you're lucky enough to live free from this obnoxious and troublesome gene, then why not use coriander's aromatic quality to the best of its ability, with a hearty and pungent soup? Carrot and coriander is, of course, everyone's favourite, but this mushroom and coriander soup is a fabulous alternative– mushrooms' earthy savouriness perfectly complements the citrus tang of coriander leaves.
Mushroom and coriander soup
350g mixed mushrooms- chestnut, shiitake, button
1 finely chopped Bay leaf
30g ground almonds
450ml semi-skimmed milk
Handful of finely chopped coriander leaves
1 tbsp unsweetened natural yoghurt
½ tsp paprika
- Roughly chop the mushrooms
- Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan, on medium-high heat
- Add the onion and bay leaf, fry for two minutes
- Add the mushrooms, mixing well, and fry for five minutes
- Bring the heat down, add the almonds and nutmeg, and season well
- Add the milk and 300ml water
- Simmer for ten minutes, stirring occasionally
- Add most of the coriander, saving some for garnish
- Blend into a smooth soup with a food processor
- Before serving, stir in the yoghurt
- Garnish with the paprika and the rest of the coriander