Is there supposed to be pressure to impress at a Christmas party? Given that we had all been working together for less than a month, I was determined to make an impressive first statement at our potluck. Cooking is afterall, a declaration of who you are.
For my first work party i.e. a possible marker of adulthood, I would come in, guns blazing with two family staples: samosas and cooked tomato chutney. It was something we saved for the times when the groups were so huge that you needed a compass to find your way through the pile of shoes by the front door.
Preparing these foods always sent a buzz through the house which would be scrubbed and vacuumed to the last roof tile. The atmosphere was at once anticipatory and celebratory. Everything felt softer and kinder, the beauty in the tiniest details would suddenly be laid bare.
In a big extended family, there’s an easy division of labor. Everyone finds their favoured spot at the table, or hunches over huge wash tubs of ingredients. Mounds of dough are punched down, then shaped and rolled out by golden brown hands, shiny with corn oil. Golden bangles clink in rhythm with knife blades that clack against makeshift cutting boards, or pot lids when we run out of the former.
There isn’t a stitch of silence to be had. Heavenly if you’re more of a listener than a talker. To the backdrop of concentrated breathing through noses studded with delicate pins of gold, you can sink into the cozy chatter, fielding an occasional question before the group gets distracted by another topic. Nobody needs to consult recipes because it’s all by feel. Every movement of the body in seasoning, flipping, and mashing is guided by senses that have perfected these dishes through years of repetition.
Because this was my first time living and working abroad, I didn’t have an immediate family backdrop to bolster my own identity. Suddenly, I was the window into a food culture that others didn’t know much about. Every mouthful therefore, had to be rich with the experiences and memories I carried.
After a day trip to Seoul the previous weekend, the two cabinets in my little kitchen were stocked with all the necessary spices. I had tomatoes that smelled as if they had been freshly plucked from the vine and green onions the length of my arm. Since Korea is a mountainous country, markets are packed with an incredible variety of fresh herbs and greens. But in and among all of these new encounters, the one herb I needed continued to elude me, no matter where I looked.
Even before deciding on what dishes to make, I searched for two weeks for dhaniya, because nothing could be complete or correct without it. Dhaniya in Indian cuisine, cilantro to most North Americans, also referred to as Chinese parsley, coriander gets its name from the plant’s genus, coriandrum sativum. The name coriandrum is itself, derived from the Greek word for a type of bug, koros, and is a direct reference to the apparently pungent smell of the plant’s leaves. To cilantro haters, this fact should be tonic to the soul.
As usual, dhaniya has a somewhat murky point of origin – having been cultivated across Southern Europe, North Africa, and in huge swathes of East and Southeast Asia. And, as is usual with all the best ingredients, history has seen it used in a variety of ways. Not only does it help compose the perfect chutney or salsa, but its cooling effects make it useful in remedies for menstrual cramps and mouth ulcers. Even the Romans used to sprinkle over some coriander seeds before a burial.
The dhaniya plant (for the sake of clarity, I will only use ‘coriander’ to refer to the seeds) has long, fragile stems and flat leaves with delicately scalloped shapes that at once prove just how precious this herb is, yet belie its beautifully punchy flavours.
Some of you are undoubtedly reading this and thinking, it tastes like a soapy punch. Disparagers rejoice, you have one day in which to share this hatred as a community, so I will therefore give you one and only one, short paragraph. February 24th is international I Hate Coriander Day.
But as a devout lover (aka not a monster) of this stuff, I would describe it as earthy but bright; sun dappling a canopy of leaves or salty sea air with a citrusy tang. Indian celebrity chef Ranveer Brar even started a Change.org petition to make dhaniya the national herb of India. It isn’t just a taste, it’s a whole sensory experience.
In Westernized exports of Indian dishes, dhaniya is way too often treated as a garnish-y afterthought, a sprinkling of ubiquitous green plant ‘dust’ in the center of the serving dish. Don’t waste any part of it. Chop the stems! Mash the roots! When you’re finished rough chopping the leaves, carefully peel off the leaves that have stuck to your fingers and savour each one. Dhaniya is one of those ‘root to fruit’ ingredients where every part of the plant deserves to be celebrated.
Blooming coriander seeds in oil with other spices lifts a dish of lighter ingredients like chickpeas or fish. Dhaniya makes a refreshing condiment when processed to a chunky texture with mint, salt and some lemon juice. The chopped leaves and stems, folded into a dish right before serving, is the crowning glory. As my mom’s kitchen apprentice/sidekick, adding the dhaniya at the end was another way of contributing to a dish and one of many important lessons about understanding how to balance flavour and texture.
My Christmas party tomato chutney is a dish which is finished with a generous handful of roughly chopped dhaniya folded in, while it is still warm, just before serving. The idea isn’t to let the leaves take over the silky liquor produced by the tomatoes and onions. In the right quantity, it lifts the dish into a light savouriness that makes your mouth water. Chef Brar sums it up much better when he says that ‘cilantro embodies “the joy of culmination – of finishing a dish well.” … “It’s the difference between food that satiates and food that stimulates.”’
On the day of the party, I was jittery, partially from the thought of having to deep fry in my studio and partly from a mild hangover from the Christmas party the night before – then as now, I don’t hesitate to dress up in my finest holiday kitsch. Visions of apathetic people pinged through my fuzzy head. When someone dislikes your food, it of course isn’t ideal, but the thought of the dishes being ignored and shoved into a corner felt even worse. Was it too late to buy those cute penguin napkins I saw the other day?
At the eleventh hour (eight in the morning to be precise) I took one more jog through the nearest supermarket. The resulting Christmas miracle turned out to be a thin bundle of mystery plant. It sort of looked like dhaniya if you raised your chin and squinted unevenly.
At home, I rinsed my purchase in a colander and had a proper look. There were also long stems, but whereas dhaniya stems crackle easily under the teeth, these were much more substantial. The leaves were a uniquely beautiful shape and just as delicate. But, dhaniya is a rich, full-bodied green. This enigma known as ssuk, looked like its pale, anemic cousin.
In Korean, ssuk translated to English as mugwort. Before dumping it all over my chutney, I tried a little test batch. Maybe I could get away with it? Or, maybe I had discovered something new? Nope. For lack of a better description, mugwort tastes green. Because it’s so strongly herbaceous, it reversed the sweet, mellow harmony of the tomatoes and onions into something unpleasantly acidic and bitter. The spices which had been lovingly bloomed into the hot oil to fuse with heaps of sliced garlic and ginger, fell flat.
In the end, I ditched the mugwort and opted for thin slices of green onion on top. To my mind the dish was still incomplete and even after it garnered a lot of compliments and nothing leftover, I couldn’t stop apologizing for the fact that it was inherently wrong.
The following spring, I was having tea with a friend when her mother brought us two trays of freshly made songpyeon, little half-moon shaped rice cakes stuffed with sweet fillings like toasted sesame and honey. Traditionally songpyeon are eaten during Chuseok, a mid-autumn festival, but they lived right around the corner from one of those dreamy little dumpling shops straight out of a food fantasy – the kind where it’s just a grandma and grandpa doing what they’ve been doing for decades and being incredible at it.
The rice flour dough is often colored with dried herbs or fruit powders, and the green ones are by far the best because the herbaceousness balances the sweet, toasty flavours.
‘What kind is this one?’ I asked my friend.
‘It’s a kind of Korean herb, ssuk. It makes good soup too.’
It was a little bit funny, seeing this imposter rear its head, taunting me. But, dramatics aside, it was interesting to see mugwort used in a way that celebrated its qualities. Even more exciting was how close I lived to the dumpling shop. Not only is mugwort good for settling an upset stomach and staunching bleeding, it tastes incredible with noodles and in soups.
Years ago, when I was still testing the waters of writing about food, I started out in the trap that food from the home kitchen, especially if it was ‘ethnic,’ had to be portrayed as immovably authentic, otherwise it was worthless. How can that be possible when the people who shaped my cooking foundations are themselves, now taking shortcuts like buying frozen roti and using Sprite to make fluffy gulgula fritters?
In the pizza episode of Ugly Delicious, Chef Christian Puglisi points out the flaws of ‘authenticity’ that can hold food back. In order to make technically authentic Neapolitan pizza, he needed to import buffalo mozzarella from the Campania region. He derides this purity, pointing out that whoever came up with this rule obviously had a vested financial interest in said mozzarella. His solution? YouTube tutorials to learn how to make mozzarella and later on, acquiring cows.
Granted, a rather tame example of flouting authenticity. So take hummus as a more extreme example. It’s a food which, in my opinion, has undergone an indescribable number of hideous mutations. Avocado hummus and beet hummus where the marketing can really push the superfood thing. Worse still, falafel hummus with two cold, deep fried suggestions of said food, shoved into a plastic container of pale gunge. Adapting or experimenting doesn’t mean open-season on cuisines of the world. But, if I’m raising any hackles here, this is also a preface to acknowledging that hummus is a dish spread across the Middle East, meaning it isn’t served the same everywhere.
In a nutshell, my chutney didn’t come out the way I wanted because there was no dhaniya. It’s a disappointment, especially because I love the stuff. But in the end, I adapted and tweaked. It tasted good and it made some of my friends curious enough to want to cook together. Another entry point into sharing my own food history. That’s the most important.
Before writing this piece, I thought it would be a clear-cut text about polarizing foods like pineapple on pizza (damn delicious) and Vegemite (which I despise for now, but I am open to trying something that could change my mind). Unfortunately dhaniya is polarizing because of an inherited genetic variant that makes it taste bitter and soapy and which seems to strike a lot of already picky eaters, but that’s neither here nor there… (That was my last jab, I swear.)
Instead, dhaniya became a kind of sensory time travel that whirled me through so much of my personal food history. I’m back in the kitchen of my childhood home standing with my mom on the wooden step stool my dad built for her. She lets me grab a fistful of chopped dhaniya and sprinkle it with care over a pot of chicken curry. The pot is one that her mother brought from Fiji and with no handles, when cooking with it, you need to grip it using a thickly folded dish towel. When you accidentally touch it, it burns so much I swear you can taste metal. My mom passed away nearly twenty years ago, and I’ve been a vegetarian for over ten. It’s a part of my food history that is authentic to me, but one that can never be recreated down to the last molecule. I have to be ok with what I can recreate based on those memories.
If, after all this, you need further convincing of dhaniya’s culinary and mystical powers, then I advise you to turn to the internet where you will find dhaniya’s answer to Salt Bae. They call him Cilantro Papi and he’s better. You’re welcome.