Cilantro, which also goes by the name of coriander, is an easily grown herb that can be added to many summer dishes. Chef Vikas Khanna, the chef at Junoon, says the herb is so essential to South Asian cooking that fruit and vegetable vendors in the Indian region of Punjab where he grew up give out free cilantro, along with chilies, with purchased vegetables.
"It's indispensable, that's why they almost give it free," he said.
The herb does have a pungent taste, though, one that not everyone is a fan of. Chef Julia Child once famously told Larry King that she hated the herb for its “dead” flavor and that she’d throw it on the ground if she came across it in a dish. Well-known groups such as I Hate Cilantro abhor the herb, and The New York Times even examined the cause behind the love-hate relationship people have with cilantro.
Khanna, whose cookbook Flavors First is out this month, notes that he once hosted an event at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for children with impaired vision. One child hated cilantro, claiming it tasted like soap, while another detected a faint lemony tang.
Generally, it's the fresh version of the herb that draws the most vehement responses. One way to distinguish cilantro from the very similar-looking Italian flat-leaf parsley is to rub a leaf between your fingers. Cilantro smells potent, whereas parsley gives off little scent. Khanna says to be careful, though: he’s been caught manhandling herbs by more than one grocer.
Cilantro, or coriander, seeds and powder are less potent forms of the herb that are commonly used in South Asian cuisine. Khanna says that the seeds are a necessary ingredient for garam masala, a spice blend that forms much of the foundation of Indian cooking. He notes that he'll often lightly fry or dry roast seeds and other whole spices (rather than coriander powder) to form the base of many of his dishes.
"I generally roast seeds," he said. "It's safer. Powders could be burned very easily and every time you burn a spice powder, it turns very bitter and it changes the color of the sauce, too."
During the hot summer months, though, fresh cilantro is a handy go-to herb for dishes that don’t require heat. In addition to being used in salsa, gaucamole and salads, it can also be used in drinks. Khanna notes a popular beverage in India uses cilantro, and it’s stored in earthen jars to keep it cool.
Below, try Khanna’s recipe for an easy, cool cilantro chutney — which doesn’t even require turning on the stove.
(Hare Dhaniya ki Chutney)
By Chef Vikas Khanna,
Flavors First (Aug. 15, 2011; Lake Isle Press)
Yield: Makes about 2 cups
- 1 large bunch cilantro, well washed and roughly chopped (about 2 ounces)
- 6 scallions, coarsely chopped
- 2 hot green chile peppers (such as Serrano or Thai), roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons peeled, chopped fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Method: Place all ingredients except the olive oil in a blender. Blend at medium speed, slowly drizzling in the olive oil, until smooth. Store, refrigerated, in an airtight container for up to 3 days.