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Coriander: For Rotten Meat, Love Potions and Gin

Look in any mid-to-well-stocked spice cupboard and you will find coriander. Look in any grocery store produce department and you will find cilantro. What you may not know, however, is that they come from the same plant. The plant that is grown for seed is referred to as coriander; it consists of the roots, seeds, leaves and flowers. Cilantro refers to the leaves and stems only and it is usually found fresh. Coriander is used in many cuisines such as Latin American, Thai, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian and African. It is used in soups, sauces, and chutneys and can be described as having a warm, nutty, spicy or citrus flavor. That’s why it is used as one of the botanicals to flavor gin. It is especially detectable in the London Dry gins.

Coriander was found in King Tut’s tomb and mentioned in the Bible. The name may have derived from the Greek word for “bedbug” because of the unpleasant smell of the green berries and flowers. As the seeds ripen, they become sweeter and aromatic.

Many of the botanicals used in making gin have interesting histories and folklore attached to them. Coriander was used in medieval times to mask the flavor of rotten meats and in a similar usage, is used in sausage making even today. It was used by the Romans as a meat preserver and used in British pharmacies to hide the flavor of some medicines. It was thought to help with digestion when made into tea and it has been used as a diuretic when boiled with cumin and drunk as tea. It has been used to relieve gas, anxiety and muscle spasms. It has also been used to ease insomnia, although some medicinal list coriander as a stimulant. In folklore, its uses include love potions, spells and aphrodisiacs, although it did need to be added to wine to become a “lust-potion.” Some of its magical properties were thought to confer wisdom on the unborn child of the mother who consumed it, memory improvement and increased potency. Some cultures thought the overuse of the seed might have been narcotic.

In the kitchen, coriander is used in almost every culture and cuisine. The seeds are used for flavoring; the leaves in salads, soups and stews, and the roots are cooked like a vegetable or used in making flavored pastes such as red curry. Usually the seeds, also called the fruit, are purchased whole and are roasted or warmed to enhance the aroma before grinding. Ground coriander seeds lose their flavor quickly and the powder should be stored in an airtight container in a dark, cool place. Coriander is used in Indian curries and acts as a thickener for Indian gravies and sauces. They can be roasted and served as a snack. Asian cuisine uses the roots; most notably they are used in Thai cooking. The leaves are used in guacamole, salsa, chutneys and sometimes in sushi rolls. The distinctive flavor is sometimes described as metallic or soapy, but those flavors may not be universally experienced as there is a suggestion that there is a genetic trait involving an enzyme that changes the taste for some.

The fresh astringent flavor of coriander makes it a natural addition to gin. Its citrus flavor is often combined with sweet orange peel or lemon to blend with the aromatic juniper berries. Its properties are also similar to angelica root; another commonly used botanical in gin making. Both of these herbs when used medicinally are thought to cure digestive problems, calm the nerves and relieve insomnia. Is it any wonder that gin is still the first choice of so many when they decide to relax with a cocktail?

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