Coriander and Cilantro

The tan, ribbed seeds of coriander (Coriandrum sativum) have a citruslike aroma complemented by notes of sage and freshly cut grass. Their pyrazine-rich flavors are warm and somewhat nutty, with floral undertones that have been likened to lemon or orange blossoms. Although the flat parsleylike leaves of the coriander plant are known as cilantro in much of the world today, they have an entirely different flavor, which some people, perhaps by genetic disposition, find agreeable and others repugnant. I once took an Italian member of Slow Food International to the Grand Canyon, where she could smell the fetid aliphatic aldehyde fragrance of cilantro rising form a Mexican restaurant more than two hundred yards away. She and many others insist that cilantro leaves exude a soapy smell that they liken to burnt rubber or stinkbugs (see linguistic evidence, below). Others find the aroma to be divine.

Curiously, manna is likened to coriander seeds in the Bible. Coriander was apparently first sown as a spice crop in the Anatolian region of present-day Turkey and spread to the Levant, Egypt, Armenia, southeastern Europe, and southern Russia early on. It is specifically named and described as a medicinal plant in an Egyptian papyrus dating from 2500 to 1550 BCE. It was also listed with just a handful of other spices for stews in some of the earliest surviving recipes, inscribed in Akkadian script on clay tablets found in Mesopotamia. The library of the seventh-century Assyrian king Ashurbanipal housed documents describing the cultivation of coriander. In my own experience of cultivating the plant for many years, I find that it is the only leafy green that will yield a harvest year-round in my warm, semi-arid climate.

The oldest name for coriander may be linked to a number of contemporary terms: kisnis in Western Turkic, geshniz in Farsi, gashnich in Tajik, kashnich in Uzbek, kishniz in Urdu, and kinj in Armenian. This suggests Turkic or proto-Farsi diffusion of the term across Central Asia and into the Indian subcontinent. The Farsi or Persian name was used in parts of China, which lends support to the hypothesis that the plant was introduced to China through Parthian or Sogdian spice trade before the founding of Islam. It is described in a chapter on leafy vegetables in a Chinese agricultural manual from the fifth century CE, indicating the cilantro greens, not just the ground seeds, were already values.

The Arabic term kuzbarah is at best distantly related to these Central Asian names but may possibly be linked to Asian terms such as the Sanskrit kustumbari, Akkadian kisburru, Telegu kustumburu, Gujarati kothmir, and Urdu kothamir.

Virtually all of the great Greek and Roman scholars interested in natural history and agriculture wrote about this crop: Aristophanes, Theophrastus, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Pliny, and Columella. Their enthusiastic promotion of coriander may have played a role in its widespread dispersal under the Green term koriannon from koris, or “stinkbug”) and the Latin term coriandrum. The names for coriander in most Western European languages can be traced back to these cognates. The terms cilantro and culantro used throughout Latin America are also derived from these same roots; however, the latter name isalso applied to Eryngium foetidum, an herb with a distinctive aroma commonly used in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

Today, coriander seeds are essential ingredients in Indian curries and garam masala, Yemeni zhoug, Ethiopian berbere, Moroccan ras el hanout, and baharat mixes throughout the Arabic-speaking world. The leaves also enter into a few mixtures, such as the green curry paste of Thai cooking and certain Mexican moles. 

Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2006.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http:/ Accessed May 7, 2013.
Sortun, Ana, with Nicole Chaison. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. New York: Regan Books, 2006.
Cilantro seeds Image Credit By Sanjay Acharya - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press