by Rishidev Chaudhuri
At first (and at second, and third) glance, the use of spices in the cuisines of the subcontinent is a subtle and mysterious art, full of musty cupboards staffed by aging apothecaries (and grandmothers) and intertwined with theories of humor-balancing and our particular relationship to the gods. Recipes and spice blends are passed on in scribbled old notebooks and on furtive scraps of paper, copied and recopied like the epics, with long lists of spices and proportions, some crossed out and replaced with others for inexplicable reasons. The spices are essential, we are told, the order in which they are added is crucial, the mind of the cook must be perfectly clear, and the incantations must be uttered perfectly resonantly.
But how to make sense of this confusion if one did not grow up hovering over a mortar and pestle? Or even if one did and was momentarily distracted (perhaps by adolescence)? One route is a close reading of existing recipes and practices, noting patterns, highlighting parsimonious explanations and gradually drawing grander and grander conclusions. Equally useful is naïve phenomenological experimentation: an analytic strategy, where we isolate and examine spices to see what they bring to our senses. In this we should be motivated by Blake's dictum that to know what is enough we must cross it: the most clarifying way to figure out what a spice is doing is to increase its proportions in a recipe ad absurdum, until the structure starts to crack and you glimpse what column of the edifice was being held up by that particular spice. Unfortunately, while this is the right way to conduct disciplined phenomenological inquiry, it is not the right way to make something to eat, and so we will scale our ambitions back and instead simply exaggerate the spice that is being studied and strip away some of the surrounding complexity. This is an ongoing project of mine, as I try to understand subcontinental food, and I'm particularly interested in collecting and devising one-note recipes that highlight a particular spice (see this article on pepper, for example).
Coriander fruits, also commonly called coriander seeds, are good for this kind of analysis. Their flavors are crucial to many subcontinental foods, and are part of what makes the cuisine distinctive. Yet, unlike a number of other spices, coriander tends to be gentle and forgiving. It's a friendly spice, with flavors of citrus and flowers mixed in with a warm spiciness. If you have coriander seeds in your pantry, chew on a few seeds as you read this and you'll smell and taste the flavors I mean (you can do this with the powder too, but it's less pleasant and it'll dry out your mouth). There's also a slight soapiness, which I'm told some people pick up on more than others. If you're curious about the chemistry of coriander, Harold McGee's book On Food and Cooking is wonderful (as usual).
As with most spices, much of the flavor is muted if you buy pre-ground coriander, especially if you don't use it quickly. It's generally more satisfying to grind whole spices in smaller quantities, which doesn't take long and has the added advantage of making me feel like one of the aforementioned apothecaries. Coriander is relatively soft, so you could use a mortar and pestle, though it can be harder to get a fine grind this way. Or you could use a coffee grinder (I use mine and clean it before and after by wiping it out, pulsing some rice in it until it's finely ground and has absorbed the residue, throwing that away and wiping it out again).
Dry roasting the coriander affords another set of flavor possibilities. To roast the seeds, heat up a pan, put in the coriander seeds and let them cook, shaking the pan occasionally to keep moving. After a few minutes (depends on how hot the pan is) you should start to see the color change and the seeds become more fragrant. Give it another half minute or so and then take them off the heat and out of the pan so that they don't keep cooking. You could use them as is, though they're usually ground after roasting. Roasting rounds out the sharper edges, releases some fragrance and adds nutty, toasty flavors (unsurprisingly), but also makes everything a little less distinctive (it's a bit like browning meat: caramelized meat is delicious but also has a more generic pattern of flavors). It's not worse but it does have a different profile. My impression is that roasted coriander is more common in the south of India than other places, and someday I mean to explore the differences more thoroughly.
Here are a couple of recipes that use coriander aggressively, and are built on a coriander-onion backbone (coriander and onion live together in a lot of curries, and it's fun picking them out and seeing what they do with each other). The first is for a dry minced/ground meat flavored with whole coriander seeds; the second is for a long-cooked onion soup that has ground coriander added towards the end. We won't roast the coriander seeds, since we want the lemon and flowers rather than the toast. Depending on how strong your coriander seeds are you might want to change quantities; you can orient yourself somewhat by chewing on a few and seeing how flavorful they are. These are both simple recipes, and you can certainly add more subtleties to them. But please don't make both of these at the same time. You'll get coriander-saturated.
For about a pound / ½ kilo of ground meat, you slice a large onion and fry it in butter or oil over medium heat until it softens and the color starts to change (if you cook longer you'll get deeper flavors, but about ten minutes is fine). Add 8-10 whole cloves of garlic and some salt and keep frying for another 5 minutes. Then add a generous half-teaspoon of chili powder (more if you like) and about quarter to half a teaspoon of turmeric and fry for a few more minutes. Add 2 teaspoons of cracked coriander seeds (to crack them, just pound them in a mortar and pestle a few times or hit them with something hard until the seeds break a bit), toss them about and add the meat. Fry till the color of the meat changes, then add 2-3 tablespoons of yogurt and cook till the liquid mostly dries up. At this point you can toss in a handful or two of something green, like parsley (or coriander leaves, if you're feeling incestuous), check the salt and then eat (with bread, with rice, as an omelette filling, by itself). You can turn this same idea into a simple braise: marinate pieces of chicken or meat with yogurt, onions, chili powder, turmeric and coriander, let it sit for some hours or overnight, and then simply cook it on low heat till the meat is done. Note that the meat isn't browned here.
The onion soup is inspired by Michael Ruhlman's recipe in his excellent book Twenty and, as he suggests, uses no stock. All you do is slice up a bunch of onions (I used about 5 large ones), toss them in a Dutch oven or other pan with some salt and cook them in butter or oil over low heat for a long time until they're nicely caramelized. This can take several hours, with occasional stirring required, but you can stop earlier if you get bored (it won't have as deep a flavor). Once the onions are done, add 2-3 teaspoons of finely ground coriander (about a half-teaspoon per onion you used, but do experiment, and make sure it's finely ground so it doesn't get in your mouth), and fry for a little bit longer. That's it for your soup base. Then add water to dilute to the consistency you want and squeeze in some lemon for acidity. I toss in a couple of sliced chilies (I find a gentle background spiciness does good things to a soup), but you don't have to. Let it simmer for a while and then you're done. This is a good soup template in general: sauté a chopped vegetable for a bit, add a spice, saute some more and then add liquid, something sour and something spicy. Carrots, squashes, leeks, potatoes and so on are good candidates for this kind of soup, and you don't need to cook them for ages like with the onions.
Of course the point here is not the recipes. They're simple templates that you might want to use as ideas, not pass on to your grandchildren. In most cases, you actually don't want to highlight coriander as a fundamental ingredient; you want it to play a more diffuse background role. But cooking in a way that deliberately brings it on stage helped me mentally clarify the flavors of coriander and gave me a much more nuanced handle on how, when and why to use it. It's also made me more sensitive to coriander's presence in the bewildering variety of curry powders and spice mixes that I encounter as I wander through the world.