It's no contest; the most heavily consumed fresh herb on our planet is coriander, which is usually called cilantro on the West Coast and sometimes Chinese parsley on the East Coast.
If you took an average day's consumption of all other herbs -- parsley, basil, thyme, tarragon, etc. -- and heaped them in a mound, then put the same day's consumption of fresh coriander next to it, the coriander pile would dwarf the other. This has been the case throughout history.
The people of both China and India consume fresh coriander on a daily basis, as they do in Latin America and Africa. The whole plant, including the roots, when pounded with other seasonings, is important to the curries of Thailand; in India it is the most distinct flavor of chats (vegetable salads); it is chopped and kneaded to make the kefta (meat balls) of the Middle East, and it gives character to the tajines of Morocco.
Indeed, the heaviest users may be the people of the Middle East for whom the plant is native. Food historians sometimes use the term "coriander belt" to refer to that part of the world, where it's used in near vegetable-like quantities.
The fact that fresh coriander was regarded as an antidote to stomach upset and gas -- it was even prescribed for ptomaine poisoning -- helped its cause. But as a few billion people can attest, once gotten used to -- its flavor puts off some people initially -- it becomes an addiction.
Coriander is in the carrot family (or the parsley family if you prefer), as are dill, cumin, caraway, fennel and anise. Coriander seeds, well known to American and European cooks for baking, are from the same plant, although they have an entirely different flavor from the leaves and stems. The fresh herb also should soon be a staple here if the new American restaurants that are concocting things like "cilantro butter" continue to exert influence. It is indeed now widely available not just in Asian and Latin markets, but also in supermarkets.
The coriander plant has a terminology problem: Whether we all end up calling it fresh coriander or cilantro (its Mexican name) may come down to a test of wills between the people who care about such things.
The term cilantro is used in California and the American Southwest probably because shortly after the Spaniards introduced the plant to the New World, Mexican Indians passed it on to tribes in what is now part of the United States. Thus it has been known around the West as a plant of Mexican origins for a long time. Since it does have an English name, and it's not of Spanish or Latin origin, to call it fresh coriander rather than cilantro is probably more correct.
The near universal popularity of this herb, aside from any medicinal properties, is due to its ability to heighten other flavors in a dish while at the same time cutting into the dish's excess -- too much richness for example. While coriander has a flavor unlike other seasonings, that flavor, chameleonlike, changes according to what it's cooked with, and thus ranks as one of the most unusual complements to food. People who claim to detest coriander will relish it in one dish while wanting to pick it out of another.
Perhaps for a novice the best way to get hooked on it is to add some hopped leaves to familiar Mexican food since it's particularly delicious with chili peppers. It should be used to garnish a taco, blended with guacamole; and it's a necessity for a fine fresh salsa.
Since the whole plant is sold, the best way to store it is with the roots in water and the leaves covered by a plastic bag in the refrigerator. The leaves may be snipped as needed, and they should be rinsed well as coriander has a tendency to be sandy.
SALSA (FRESH CHILI-TOMATO SAUCE) (Makes about 3 cups)
This fiery sauce can be used to garnish tacos, as the seasoning for guacamole, as a dip for corn chips, or spooned over black bean soup or your favorite chili.
2 cups tomatoes, chopped (canned Italian plum tomatoes are the best)
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 fresh jalapen o or serrano chili peppers, finely chopped, seeds and all
1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Stir all ingredients until well blended. (This may be made in a food processor.)
CORIANDER AND PEANUT SALAD (China) (4 servings)
This unusual cold dish requires a piece of dried brown bean curd (tofu) found in Chinese markets and usually wrapped in heavy plastic. This is not to be confused with fried bean curd. The amount of coriander seems enormous, but the parboiling reduces the amount substantially, and reduces the flavor as well.
1 square dried bean curd
1 cup peanut oil
1/2 cup raw peanuts
1 pound coriander leaves and stems
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
In water to cover, simmer the bean curd for 5 minutes and drain. When cool, cut into a very fine dice and put it into a mixing bowl. Heat the oil in a saucepan until nearly smoking and turn off the heat. Add the peanuts, and allow to sit for a minute or so. They should be a light brown. If not, you may have to turn on the heat briefly. (Be careful not to burn them.) Remove to use a paper towel to drain.
Bring a large pot of water to boil and drop in the coriander, stir briefly, then immediately drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Wring the coriander out with your hands to extract most of its water. Chop it finely and add to the bowl with the bean curd. Add the peanuts, then toss with the remaining ingredients and serve.
CHERMOULA (Makes about 2 cups)
This all-purpose Moroccan marinade adds exceptional flavor to grilled fish fillets, whole fish, or chicken. If grilling is impossible, the marinade may be used for broiling with fine results.
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 bunch fresh coriander, leaves and stems
1 jalapen o or serrano pepper
4 cloves garlic
1 thick slice fresh ginger
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 lemon, thinly sliced
Toast the cumin seeds in a dry pan until fragrant, and add to a food processor or blender with all the remaining ingredients except the oil and lemon slices. Blend to a paste, and transfer it to a mixing bowl, and stir in the oil.
Marinate the fish or chicken to be grilled in the sauce for an hour at room temperature while you prepare your fire. As the meat is grilling, use the marinade to baste it from time to time. Before the meat is done heat the remaining marinade with the lemon slices. When cooked, remove the meat to a serving platter and pour over the warm marinade, and serve.
CHICKEN IN APRICOT-CORIANDER SAUCE (India) (4 servings)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 cup dried apricots
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups coriander leaves and stems
1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
3-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/2 cups chopped canned tomatoes
Fresh coriander leaves for garnish
Rub the chicken with 1 teaspoon salt and the ground ginger, and let stand for an hour. Meanwhile, soak the dried apricots in 1 1/2 cups of hot water for 45 minutes. Remove the apricots, reserving the liquid, and in a blender or food processor, blend the apricots with the sugar and fresh coriander to a paste. (You may have to add a little of the reserved soaking liquid.)
Heat 1/4 cup of oil in a heavy skillet and brown the chicken pieces a few at a time, removing them with a slotted spoon to a warmed platter. Add the chicken, remaining 1/4 cup oil and fry the onion until it is golden brown. Add the garlic, fresh ginger, cinnamon stick and cardamom, and cook, stirring for another minute. Add the cloves, pepper, tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt, apricot pure'e and the reserved soaking liquid, and bring to a boil. Add the chicken and bring to a boil again. Turn the heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 45 minutes, stirring from time to time. You may have to adjust the heat or add water.
When the chicken is done remove the pieces to a serving platter. Reduce the sauce if necessary to a desired consistency and pour over the chicken. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve.