Spice advice: Coriander seeds

Coriander seeds

For most Western cooks, European herbs and spices are manageable: if you don't like parsley you can leave it out, and pepper fans will add it to taste without batting an eyelid. The more 'exotic' spices, however, are another story. When a recipe calls for a mixture of these spices many will follow it unquestioningly, amassing a catalogue of recipes with very little understanding for what they're actually doing.

This might not be you, and perhaps I'm addressing it to the wrong crowd. However I know heaps of people who "love cooking Indian food" yet couldn't pick fenugreek out of a spice lineup. This is okay; we're not all obsessive about food, and with so many good recipes out there it's easy to make tasty meals from obscure spices. But that said, nothing's more freeing than having the confidence and experience to improvise.

With that in mind, I had a crazy idea: to profile all of my favourite spices over a series of posts. For each I'll try to describe how they taste, and give a recipe that showcases that ingredient's best qualities. It's ambitious and I make no promises about how far into this journey I'll get, but hopefully I can inspire you to experiment with spices and learn a thing or two myself. Here goes nothing.

No wait, here goes coriander seeds.

If you asked me to cook with only one spice for the rest of my life I'd go insane before I could choose. But if you asked me to smell one spice for the rest of my life it would be toasted coriander. Raw it smells sweet like plums, with a slightly orange-y citrus aroma. You can definitely smell fresh coriander (cilantro) there too, only much milder and darker. We're getting into wanky territory now, but if the smell of fresh coriander has top and bottom notes then coriander seeds carry the bottom notes. Toasting deepens the flavours and brings out a much more savory smell, but that sweet citrus remains.

Coriander is versatile, but I like to use it more on the fresh, bright, and sweet side of the curry spectrum rather than the rich, intensely savory side. In my opinion coriander seeds are an excellent grounding for curries that have a bit of sourness, or those that contain warmer sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves. But don't just trust me, smell and taste some whole coriander seeds, then toast and repeat.

This chicken curry recipe doesn't contain only coriander seeds (what would be the point of that?), but they do feature prominently. The tomatoes have a bit of a sweet/sour thing going on (more sweet), and a touch of garam masala is as always a nice combination with the coriander. Both my thriftiness and potato fandom are evident in this recipe, so for yourself feel free to change the balance of potato and chicken.

Coriander chicken curry

Coriander chicken curry

Ingredients (serves 2):

  • 1.5 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 dried red chilies
  • 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1/4 of an onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp ginger & garlic paste
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp peanut/canola/olive oil
  • 1/2 cup canned tomatoes
  • 1 cup water
  • 250 g chicken pieces (on the bone is best)
  • 400 g waxy potatoes, in medium pieces
  • A small handful of fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)

1. In a hot, dry pan toast the coriander and cumin seeds for about 30 seconds. Add the chilies and fenugreek seeds and toast for a further 10 seconds before removing to a spice grinder to cool. When cooled, grind the spices, then add the onion, salt, and garlic & ginger paste and blend to form a paste. You may want to add a tablespoon of water to help it blend.
2. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat, then add the curry paste and fry, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in the canned tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes until they start to break down.
3. Add the chicken and stir through the curry paste to cook the spices onto the chicken. Add 1 cup of water and bring to a simmer. Cook the chicken, covered, for about 30 minutes to become tender.
4. Add the potatoes ensuring they're mostly immersed in water, and simmer uncovered for 25 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked and the sauce reduced. Salt to taste, mix in the coriander leaves, and serve with basmati rice.

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