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  (Lentils Cooked with Spice)

Almost no one is neutral about coriander. However, the degree of disparity in opinions is generally greater when people are discussing the leaves, as opposed to the seeds. The two don't even taste like they're related.

The leaves are the heady, pungent greens that are known more commonly in this country as cilantro. They are a prized ingredient in several of the world's great cuisines. I'm crazy about them, but I've seen a lot of folks recoil as if from toxic waste. However, the seeds are a more common and more familiar taste. They are the primary spice in hot dogs.

This disagreement as to the appeal of coriander is not a new one. Even the name speaks of early disparagement—it comes from the Greek koris, which means bedbug. The Greeks maintained that this is what the plant smelled like. I am really delighted to say that I've never had the opportunity to find out if this is true.

Coriander has one of the longest recorded histories of any of the spices. There is evidence that this native of the Mediterranean and Near East has been in use since 5000 BC Its seeds have been found in Bronze Age ruins on Aegean islands and in the tombs of the Pharaohs. (The Egyptians added the seeds to wine because they thought it would heighten the wine's intoxicating powers.) Coriander is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus and the books of Moses, and was grown in Assyria and Babylon.

The Romans felt that the best coriander came from Egypt. The Romans used it in bread, in stews, and in an early version of bouquet garni. Just about anyone in Rome who wrote about food—Plautus, Varro, Virgil, Apicius—mentioned coriander in some context.

In the Middle Ages, coriander was exported into northern Europe. In the fourteenth century, when there was little else to flavor bland foods, it gained in popularity. For a time it was grown in southern England, making it relatively cheap in an age when most other spices, though becoming available, were costly and well out of range of most people's budgets.

Coriander became popular in Paris in the 17th century, where it was the principal ingredient of Eau do Carnes, a strange brew that could be used either as a liqueur or as a cologne.

Coriander was introduced into Latin America by the Spaniards soon after they bumped into the New World. It was an instant success. Cultivated by the Mexicans, it followed trade routes into what is now the southwestern United States. It is still grown widely by the Zuni Indians, who use its leaves for salads and its seeds to flavor meat.

Sometimes called Chinese parsley, the leaves are used as widely as the seeds, but not always in the same places. While the seeds are ubiquitous in the U.S., for example, the leaves are only becoming more popular as ethnic dining spreads. Coriander leaves are used as herbs or salad greens in China, India, North Africa, Madagascar, Latin America, Spain, Portugal, and Cyprus (where it has grown since antiquity).

Here's a recipe from India that uses both coriander seeds and leaves. Almost nobody does spices like India does. Of course, as the source of many of the world's most popular spices, they've been cooking with many of them longer than just about anyone else, and use them with the kind of abandon that is only possible if the stuff grows in your backyard. Here's a tasty lentil dish that uses just about everything in your spice cabinet.

(Lentils Cooked with Spice)

1 cup lentils


¼ tsp. ground fenugreek

1½ tsp. salt

⅓ cup shredded coconut

2 tsp. ground cumin seeds

1 Tbs. ground coriander seeds

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

1 cup tamarind juice

1 tsp. hot chilli powder

2 Tbs. chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)

2 Tbs. vegetable oil

1 tsp. mustard seeds

1 tsp. turmeric

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 green chilli, finely chopped

Soak the lentils in cold water for 1 hour, then drain.

Put the soaked lentils, fenugreek, and 1 tsp. of salt into a saucepan with 5 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 hour, or until the lentils are soft. Remove from the heat.

While your lentils simmer, cook the coconut, cumin, coriander seeds, and cinnamon in a frying pan for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and cool. Purée the mixture in a blender with 4 Tbs. water. Set aside.

Put the tamarind juice, chilli powder, coriander leaves, and ½ tsp. salt in a saucepan. Place over moderate heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Heat the oil in a small frying pan. Add the mustard seeds and cover. When they begin to spatter, stir in the turmeric, garlic, and green chilli. Reduce the heat to low and fry for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir this mixture into the lentils. Also stir in the tamarind mixture and coconut purée. Return the pan of lentils to low heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Transfer to a serving bowl and serve at once, preferably accompanied with basmati rice.

Serves 4.

Ingredient Notes:

If you can't find tamarind juice, you could substitute a cup of water with a 2 tsp. of brown sugar. But do try to find the tamarind juice. If you get tamarind syrup, just add a few Tbs. to water to make one cup. The leftover syrup makes a nice beverage when added to carbonated water (this is how soft drinks are created in many parts of the world).

As for chilli powder, this isn't the same as chile powder. Chile powder is a blend of several spices designed for making chile con carne. Chilli is what hot peppers (or chilies) are called in India. If you can't find Indian chilli powder, use hot ground or crushed red pepper. And for the green chilli, you can just use a jalapeño, unless you have a store that offers (and a desire to use) hotter chilies.

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