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The Coriander Complexby Gary Allen

In the US, during the sixties and early seventies, exposure to a host of formerly unfamiliar world cuisines, led to some remarkable changes in the American diet. Coriander provides a perfect example of this sort of culinary change.

The seeds of this plant, originally native to the Mediterranean region, have been a staple in European kitchens for thousands of years. Consequently, they were common in American kitchens almost from the beginning. They were used in baked goods and in pickles, and not much else. In the mid-nineteen sixties, some recipes (especially those in Chinese cookbooks) began mentioning something called “Chinese parsley,” usually accompanied by a note advising home cooks to “substitute parsley”—a sign that consumers had trouble finding this rare ingredient in ordinary supermarkets.

Anyone who had actually tasted “Chinese parsley” would have known that regular parsley was a completely inadequate substitution. However, most Americans would not have known the difference back then. Within a decade, all that had changed. “Chinese parsley” had become “cilantro,” and had become an accepted item in American kitchens—although there were still some “gourmets” who complained that the herb tasted “soapy.” There may still be people who feel that way, but cilantro is so widely accepted that few people voice that opinion any more.

What caused the change? A widespread exposure to new cuisines, for one thing.

Changes in immigration regulations led to a sudden increase in the number of Chinese entering the country, with the result that Chinese restaurants began serving something much more akin to the food in China than the familiar Chinese-American fare that had been common since the 1920s. Suddenly, Americans knew that there was something beyond the so-called “Cantonese” dishes to which they had become accustomed. Diners began seeking spots that served “Mandarin” and “Szechuan” dishes. Today, we would call them “Beijing” or “Sichuan”—but we also know about the styles of Fukien, Hunan, and other regional Chinese cooking styles.

Along with changes in Chinese immigration, the war in Southeast Asia led to more arrivals from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Indonesia. Economic opportunities, legal and otherwise, brought thousands of new people from Mexico and Central America as well. Large numbers of people from India arrived. Many technically-trained Indians came to work in the exploding computer industry, then found that running food stores or restaurants for their compatriots provided a more stable income than the ever-fluctuating high-tech job market. All of these groups knew cilantro, and used it routinely in their cooking.

America noticed. Changes in lifestyles (a term that didn’t really exist before that time), disposable incomes, levels of education, travel, new entertainment media, and a thorough mixing of cultures led to an explosion of interest in what used to be called “gourmet” cooking. Few people use the term “gourmet” any more, since today’s everyday American cooking is more sophisticated than the “gourmet” cooking of the past.

Cilantro could be considered the poster child for all these culturally induced culinary changes. Guacamole and salsa have largely replaced the sour-cream-onion-soup mix dips that were so common a few decades ago. The frozen food aisle of our markets are filled with ready-to-heat meals that would have been impossibly exotic not very long ago: Ecuadorian, Indian, Mexican, Pakistani, Thai and Indonesian dishes compete for shelf space with frozen pot pies and TV dinners. Today, cilantro is as common as parsley in the grocery portion of our supermarkets—and no one would even think of substituting one for the other.

Guacamole

This recipe is based on one from Craig Claiborne. It’s more rustic and flavorful than the bland stuff that usually passes for guacamole. Make sure to use Haas avocados (the ones with pebbly black skins, not the big smooth green ones from Florida). A ripe avocado should yield slightly under finger pressure; it should be neither hard nor squishy.

What you need:
1 jalapeño chile, seeded and minced
2 scallions, green and white parts, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled, crushed and minced
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
½ lime, juice only
1 tsp. fresh cilantro, chopped (or more, to taste)
2 ripe Haas avocados
salt and Tabasco/hot pepper sauce (if needed)

Place first six ingredients in a heavy bowl. Cut the avocados in half, remove the seeds, and scoop the green flesh into the bowl. Make sure to scrape close to the skin, as the avocado is greenest and most-flavorful there. Mash until well-mixed but still revealing the individual ingredients (it should not be a uniform paste). Adjust seasoning with salt and Tabasco to taste. Garnish with additional cilantro leaves, if desired.

Note: Guacamole will quickly turn brown if exposed to air. Contrary to some people's beliefs, embedding the seeds in the guacamole does not prevent browning. Covering it with plastic wrap—carefully pressing it down so no air comes in contact with the guacamole—prevents undesirable discoloration.

You can find more of Gary Allen’s speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) stick in his mouth—his own foot being a prime example of the latter—at his website www.onthetable.us.



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