Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why I grow cilantro

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) seeds

People who hate cilantro really hate it. There's a genetic factor* that makes cilantro tastes soapy to some people. Even cilantro-haters have to admit one good thing about it, though: without it, we would have no coriander. Coriander is actually the dried fruit and seed of the cilantro plant (whose latin name is, tellingly, Coriandrum sativum). It's also a key ingredient in many of your favorite Indian, Middle Eastern, and North African dishes, not to mention my amazing garam masala oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

*For geeks: There's a cluster of genes on chromosome 11 that code for olfactory receptors. One of those (OR6A2) has high binding specificity for aldehydes, which means it affects how strongly you smell a category of "smell molecules" that include the ones found in cilantro and soap. Within this cluster of genes is a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) — a spot where a single "letter" of DNA is different from the norm. A typo, if you will. In this case, a typo that seems to make this particular smell receptor extra-sensitive to a soapy smell molecule. For this SNP (rs72921001), people with a "C" instead of a "T" are more likely to taste cilantro as soapy, and more likely to hate cilantro. Full article at

Cilantro / Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) plant

Personally, I can take cilantro or leave it. This is where having it in my own herb garden is nice. While I might buy some herbs for a recipe, I'd never bother to buy fresh cilantro — I'd just leave it out. But once planted, the cilantro seedling doesn't need any extra care, and any time I need a few leaves, it's there. The rest of the time, I can just ignore it.

Until it goes to seed. I tend to let my herbs go to flower — bees love them — and then trim them back once the flowers die. But the ones whose seeds are delicious I leave alone, letting the seeds dry on the plant. Once they're dry, I pick them and fret about whether I should wash off the dirt and bug poop and re-dry them, or just brush them off. (I go case-by-case on that one.) I store them whole until I'm ready to use them, then toast and grind them (or grind and then toast, depending on the recipe).

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) seeds and flowers

Why bother? Because fresh spices are a completely different ingredient than the ones you bought three years ago and still have most of a jar of. Flavor diminishes over time, to the point that many people say it's not worth using spices over a year old. Of course, you don't need to grow your own, unless you're into that sort of thing. Just buy your spices in small quantities, more often — ideally, buying only as much as you'll use up in a few months. Markets with bulk bins sections often sell bulk spices, meaning you can buy as little as a tablespoon at a time, at a lower price-per-ounce than the prepackaged jars.

Of course, now that I have all this fresh coriander, it might be time to bake a batch of those cookies.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) stem and seeds