C Y Gopinath: The agony of being coriander in India
The prostitution of the exquisite, delicate coriander has turned India's culinary heritage into a tale of rape and murder
Your honour, THERE IS NO SCOPE for any misunderstanding. The accused, fine dining restaurateur Vinayak Deshmukh, not his real name, is squarely charged with having scattered chopped coriander leaves over my clien's strawberry cheesecake before serving it. Being a refined diner yourself, Your Sour Eructation will already know what a gosh-awful combination that is. The accused did it anyway, claiming that every dish in his restaurant is routinely sprinkled with coriander before it leaves the kitchen.
He claims it's the "Indian way", handed down the generations to him by his very grandfather. My client, name withheld, is a discerning gourmet and strongly feels that the dignity of fresh strawberries and cream in purest cheesecake is irretrievably slurred when coriander is arbitrarily sprinkled on it. He says you would never ever see such a travesty of dessert in his home city of Bangkok, where coriander is treated with respect befitting a noblewoman.
I draw your august attention to the chemical family called terpenes, within which you will find the floral molecule linalool, the very thing that makes coriander coriander. Linalool is found not just in coriander, but also in delicate classics such as orange flower, lavender, jasmine, bergamot and basil. Coriander adds a complex character, combing soapy, piney, roasted anise with facets of lemon and pepper. She wilts in minutes; she dies when cooked; she yearns to be added fresh. But most of all, she begs to be added discerningly only to dishes where she can work her magic.
Not knowing these culinary gems, Indian cooks in a hurry add coriander as dabs of green to prettify their nondescript 'masterpieces'. "Thais never sprinkle coriander routinely on nothing," says my client, and we may excuse him the double negative considering his emotionally distraught state. "In some spices, like the legendary Thai Green Curry Paste, they grind in coriander roots, more sharply coriandery than the leaves. In others, they use just a few leaves for a lighter touch."
'SPRINKLING CORIANDER ROUTINELY'. Consider that phrase for just a moment, if you will, Your Grace. The same ancient culture that led to cuisines as varied as Bengali, Mughlai, Palakkad, Chettinad, Kashmiri and Goan, has now been reduced to a whimpering, insecure shadow of itself. Kitchens are manned by chefs so unsure of their final dish that they smother everything with fistfuls of coriander just to reduce it to a safe and predictable sameness.
The assumption, m'lord, seems to be that everyone loves coriander. "What's not to love?" they ask. No one minds a touch of it and it adds that lovely shade of green. Like instant rouge and mascara for a deadly drab dish.
But India's glorious cuisine, Your Magnitude, stands in ruins today because of this irreverence. There was a mythical time when seekh kebabs or tandoori chickens didn't come blanketed in chopped leaves. Steaming hot idlis never used to be pimpled with flecks of green. Biryanis didn't need foliage cover to stand up and face the world.
Even that uniquely Indian culinary bastard, Chicken Manchurian, unheard of in Manchuria but sold as authentic Chinese fare on Mumbai streets, is now smothered under showers of coriander, which is treated as no more than a streetwalker with weird green eyeliner, pawed and abused by every passing cook.
Your Vile Emanation, sir, Shri Deshmukh claims that adding coriander to everything somehow puts India in the cutting edge of modern fusion cuisine, or is it molecular, where anything can be added to anything and sold in tiny dollops at thrice the price. The prosecution humbly claims that this is not fusion, this is confusion.
ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE exhibit A, the Facebook page I Hate Coriander (with T-shirts stating this available in black or white for $29.95 only). I also have Exhibit B, www.ihatecilantro.com, where people who have quite had it with flagrant coriander abuse, have described it as tasting like a sidewalk in China; burnt used baby wipes; and a bag of hair with onion inside, and on fire.
I grant you, my lord, these may be a little extreme, but they merely reflect my client's angst. He does not want coriander to be treated like cling wrap for a mediocre dish made in a hurry by an incompetent cook. That would prostitute this queen of herbs and reduce India's culinary heritage to a sordid story of rape and murder. This is why, Your Rotundity, we protest your Trumpian verdict that spinach, methi, and other Indian greens be replaced with coriander to punish protesters. That is victim shaming of the worst kind. We demand that you reverse this judgement, and instead immediately outlaw casual sex with coriander in the kitchen. Or else, by gum, we'll cook your wig for you in a tandoori oven and make you eat it. Liberally laced with coriander.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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