Indian food, like all food, is subject to misconceptions and generalizations. Diners only familiar with the steam-table fare of greasy-spoon Indian restaurants will assume that all Indian food is slicked with liberal amounts of ghee (or, more commonly, oil). Others who’ve had the opportunity to eat at kabab houses assume that the meat cookery of the northern states of the country represent the acme of Indian cooking. Breakfast hounds will aver that dosas and idlis must surely be the typical daily food of all Indians.
All of these are, inescapably, part-truths, largely because of the sheer size of the country and the number of cooks in its proverbial kitchen—if you can identify a style of cooking there’s a good chance that it’s someone’s quotidian fare. But it’s harder to find a truism that holds true of all Indian food across the country. If, however, one were forced to choose one ingredient that was universally beloved in almost all of the country (a questionable compulsion, it’s true) perhaps cilantro would come close to snagging the top spot.
Cilantro goes by an army of names (both in India and the West). Just some of the more common in India are kothambari (Kannada), dhaniya (Hindi) kothamalli (Tamil), dhana (Gujarati), and malli (Malayalam). Whatever you call it, though, it’s a great and easy way to add flavor to any number of dishes. Cilantro, like aniseed, cumin, carrots, and celery, belongs to the Apiaceae family, and produces umbel-shaped flowers, from which its seeds are eventually harvested.
The seeds of the cilantro plant (often sold as coriander in the US, though many cultures use the word coriander interchangeably for the greens and the seed) are also widely used in Indian food, though it has a remarkably different flavor profile from the greens. Don’t feel compelled to choose between the two, though: incorporate them both into your daily cooking—you’ll be glad you did!
Cilantro gets a bad rap in the West—many diners find the taste of the aldehyde-rich leaves soapy and objectionable, an aversion that’s apparently genetically determined. But many people love it (me included), and if you’re one of the lucky ones who does, you have plenty to gain from it: cilantro is a nutritional powerhouse, packed with vitamins (A, K, E, C), antioxidants, fiber, and minerals.
The Indian approach to herbs can vary a little from the way cilantro and its ilk are dealt with in the West. Whereas many cooks in the West think of cilantro, mint, or other herbs as decorative accents or as a minor flavor note at best—Indian cooks routinely make use of massive quantities of herbs, cooking them down into a puree, or sometimes even serving them raw as part of a relish or a chutney. If you like cilantro, feel free to use it wantonly; there’s very little ill that you can do to a dish by being generous with your herbs.
When buying cilantro, make sure to buy bunches that are sturdy. The stems should be green and unbruised, and the leaves should be fresh, unwilted, and show no visible signs of distress. Avoid limp, waterlogged bunches of cilantro, which may appear bright and fresh in the store but can begin their demise the moment you put them in your shopping bag. When you get home, wash your cilantro in a large basin of cool water. Spin it dry in a salad spinner or let it air dry for an hour or so between layers of paper toweling.
Store cilantro in a large sealable plastic bag between slightly damp paper towels. Stored this way, cilantro will keep for a week or longer, though of course the sooner you use it the stronger and more flavorful it will taste.
Many people mistakenly throw away the stems when cleaning cilantro. The stems, unlike, say, parsley stems, are tender and easy to eat, and what’s more, they’re packed with flavor. If you do plan on using your cilantro for a garnish without chopping it, the stems can be a little bothersome, so feel free to use just the leaves in that case. But, especially if you’re going to be chopping the cilantro or cooking it, make sure to reserve the stems and make liberal use of them.