I like coriander, and I like the word coriander. I’m fine with the word cilantro too, although I’m not too keen on cilantro.
Yes, I know that coriander and cilantro are the same plant. Here in North America among Anglophones, it is usual for cilantro to refer to the leaves and coriander to the seeds. And it is the seeds that I generally fancy more. The flavour is nice enough, and it brings back memories.
Coriander was the name of a natural food store in the Sundance Mall in Banff – on the upper floor, which you had to take an elevator or an unprepossessing staircase to get to. It smelled like a natural food store. Like all natural food stores smell: an impossibly complex olfactory mud of hundreds of spices and whole grains and sprouted grains and nuts and beans and seeds and leaves and things you only eat because they’re good for you and some things you’d eat anyway. You could get a peanut butter and banana sandwich at Coriander made with thick-cut whole-grain bread, chunks of banana, and dense peanut butter that had been made right there and was no so much spread on the bread as impressed upon it a centimetre or two thick. You could also buy any of quite a few Celestial Seasonings teas – that was where I first met the brand (I still have at least one bag of something of theirs most days of the week, although it has been years since I had any of their famous Sleepytime tea, their big breakthrough blend). You could also have soup and all those other things that natural food places make. To be perfectly honest, I am not at all sure that I ever had anything there that had coriander in it. But coriander was undoubtedly one of the myriad components of that smell that wrapped the premises.
That store is the first place and thing I associate with coriander. I may well have encountered the spice by name before, though. I certainly used it in cooking every so often once I was cooking every so often. It was one of the ingredients I used in the nasi goreng I used to like to make. I still have a jar of it on my spice rack, but I must confess I don’t use as much of it as I used to.
The other thing that coriander makes me think of is Calvin and Hobbes, which to my mind is the best comic strip ever, and I’m generally not a person who chooses single bests or favourites. The connection is that Calvin’s favourite book was Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie, and its sequel was Commander Coriander Salamander and ’er Singlehander Bellylander.
Coriander has some interesting flavours as a word: all those words starting with cori or similar such as coryphaeus, coryza, and anyone you know named Corey; there’s also a core of cor words, though chorus, corpus, and court are as faint as the hint of carob in the smell at Coriander; there are also ander words such as Alexander, salamander, philander, commander, and so on; and I find a variable echo of words that hinge on ri such as variant, orient, euphoria, aerial, teriyaki, and so on. It’s all there, but you may not pick out invidual subtle smells behind a few dominant ones.
I think coriander is a good word for the spice. The spice seems suited to the air of the natural food store, and the natural food store seemed suited to the word, with its late-blooming flower child sensibility and its whole-spice and grainy or seedlike image. Of course the word is much older than flower children. It comes from Latin coriandrum, from Greek κορίαννον koriannon (where Greek got it from is a conundrum). English has had the word since the 1300s at least.
The word cilantro also comes from the same root, as of course does what it names. But I’ll leave that for tomorrow.