We are hooked on this herb

Confessions of a coriander addict, by Simon Hopkinson

One could say, tongue firmly in cheek, that coriander is enjoying a certain popularity at present. By coriander, I mean the fresh sort, with leafy, almost dangling stalks (not the seeds that are wonderfully aromatic but bear no relation to their fronded tufts above ground). It never seems to be crisp and fresh like flat parsley, with which it is often linked. And it is odd that coriander is also known by the slight misnomer "continental parsley"; I have never really understood it. By "continental" I always think of Spain, Italy, Greece - certainly somewhere European.

But do European countries use coriander in great quanitity? No, they do not. Yet Asian countries most definitely do. In spades. So I would like to take this opportunity to rename coriander's secondary nomenclature and call it "Asian parsley".

Perversely, coriander bears no relation at all to parsley as far as taste goes; looks yes, I suppose, but those sprightly sprigs of parsley always give the game away when put against a limp bunch of coriander. And furthermore, if I see another recipe that suggests "if you cannot get fresh coriander, then you can use flat-leaf parsley instead", I shall explode with rage.

One of the reasons for the present rush of corianderama could be the relentless spread of Thai restaurants, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Coriander, after all, is the most commonly used herb in all Asia, though particularly in Thailand. Is it actually some Thai Restaurant Association marketing ploy, I wonder? Are there huge tracts of land being cultivated at this very moment, perhaps somewhere outside Goldalming, to be filled with gently swaying rows of this most junky of herbs? For it is addictive (I have been known to eat great clumps of it, like watercress), and it is almost as if we are becoming mugged by it.

Coriander was almost unknown in household kitchens five years ago, and the first time I used it was in 1983 at Hilaire in the Old Brompton Road, London, where I was chef. It had been my first attempt at a Thai soup. It required coconut milk, pieces of chicken, galanga ginger (a strong, almost medicinal ginger; laos is its other name) and other aromatics including lemon-grass and lime-leaf, chillies and Asian fish sauce.

I have since successfully made this soup with ordinary ginger. It is very simple to make, because all the ingredients are gently simmered together for about half an hour and the chopped coriander is added at the last moment. And it was the chopped coriander that really excited me. It sharpened and lifted the broth; its almost mineral flavour added a savoury note that was nearly not herbal at all.

It is a great soup, and I have been making it ever since. I understand that Raymond Blanc has recently discovered Thai food and has been putting his version of this soup on the menu at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. I bet it is delicious, too.

However, no sooner had I become used to coriander in this Thai mode than I was slapped in the face with coriander in salsa. Henry, my sous- chef at the time, had recently returned from San Francisco, his gastronomic head full of black bean soup, crab cakes and chillied salsas of every hue and flavour. Somehow this raw chutney - which is to Mexicans what nam prik is to Thais - invaded my menus.

It was a great discovery, and next week I will give you recipes for salsas and what to serve them with. Grilled meats are much enlivened by a punchy salsa, as is that black bean soup. So off to your greengrocer for your hit of coriander.

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