It’s Definitely Called Coriander – Except When It Definitely Isn’t

In my second term at University, I was a little desperate to make some new friends, so I started cooking Cypriot food. 

I did this for three reasons:

  1. I didn’t know any other students who were from Cyprus, so that was my best shot at creating a meal so unusual and “exotic” that it was sure to attract a lot of attention…
  2. I lived in the Greek side of Cyprus as a child, so I knew it had a rich and exciting gastronomic history that wasn’t just Greek food imported wholesale but an often quite different range of flavours, some of them more inspired by countries to the east than the state-designated homeland to the west…
  3. I knew absolutely nothing about Cypriot cooking.

Because, how could I? I was four years old when we arrived in Cyprus, and nine when we left again. I’d barely mastered tying my own shoelaces in that whole time, so there was no way my parents were letting me anywhere near the gas oven & hob in our kitchen. Or, heavens forbid, something sharp

So here I was twenty years later, operating under a veil of opportunistic fraudulence. I knew I would quickly get found out if I attempted to make anything complicated – so I aimed for a simple hearty stew, the kind that required chucking fresh ingredients into the same pot (I could do that!) and cooking them on a low heat for a long time, thereby giving me, I assumed, plenty of opportunity to course-correct if something started going wrong. 

(I was also prepared to entirely cheat, and had the phone number of the local Greek restaurant in case of disaster.)  

Halloumi cheese, capable of achieving a golden-brown crust under high temperatures.
Halloumi cheese, capable of achieving a golden-brown crust under high temperatures.

If you’re heading to Cyprus with Wheel & Anchor for the Liveaway this year or the next, you’re going to discover that the food is just incredible. I’ve already enthused wildly about the squeaky grillable joys of Halloumi cheese, and the oldest & (in my humble opinion) best fortified wine in the world, made on the slopes of the island’s primary mountain range. There’s so much more to discover – but here’s an easy one, in case you’re performance-cooking for a bunch of friends and you suspect you should never be let loose inside a kitchen.

It’s called afelia (pronounced “a-failure” – which of course led to a number of wry jokes at my expense), and it’s a seasoned stew filled with pork marinaded in red wine. It’s a wonderfully imprecise recipe: get a certain amount of pork, crush up some coriander seeds, roll the bits of pork in the crushed seeds with a bit of salt and pepper, add a liberal or even alarming amount of wine to the mix, leave for a few hours (or ideally overnight) so all the flavours soak into the meat, sauté the meat while cooking some potatoes, fry those potatoes a bit in olive oil, throw everything into a pan with more olive oil and wine, and then slow-cook for at least another hour or until there’s just enough liquid left to teaspoon back over the meat just before serving. Arrange on a plate with some yoghurt and flatbread and a garnish of fresh coriander, and – whatever the Greek equivalent of “hey presto” is.

So I cooked it, and it went magnificently well – proving that afelia is a truly idiot-proof dish – and my guests all seemed to be very happy indeed.

Aphelia is a traditional Cypriot dish with rich flavors.
Aphelia is a traditional Cypriot dish with rich flavors.

Then one of them, an American, asked me how I made it. After mumbling something like well, I grew up in Cyprus, these things just rub off on you after a while, I started by listing the ingredients…

“Sorry,” interrupted my friend. “What in the world is ‘Coriander’?”

You can’t really prepare an authentical-tasting meal of Cyprus cuisine with having some coriander in there – either a fresh parsley-like sprig of it, or ripped handfuls tossed into a salad mix, or the dried varieties, like its crushed and ground seeds being used to spice meat or give oil-crisped potatoes a deliciously nutty smokiness. It’s a herb that grows wil over Western Asia and Southern Europe, and a mainstay of British herb gardens – so I was a bit thunderstruck to learn my friend had never heard the term. 

“Uh – you know, coriander! It’s in guacamole, along with the avocado, tomato, salt and lime juice.”

“Wait, you mean cilantro?”

Now it was my turn to be nonplussed at a word I’d never heard before.

Those moments are always fun: you think you both speak the same language, but then along comes something like this. Usually it’s a minor difference: the “i” separating British aluminium from the American aluminum, for example, which is a case where we Brits have got it wrong (when English chemist Sir Humphry Davey published his discovery of it in 1812, he named the metal aluminum, and it’s possible that the extra “i” came from a reproduction typo). Of course there’s color vs. colour, and there’s certainly a good case for the former spelling being the correct one, because nobody says “cull-uuur” with equal emphasis on both sides of the word. And so on.

Another delectable dish to try in Cyprus is Souvlaki. Usually prepared with pork, chicken, or lamb, it is seasoned with a blend of spices, olive oil, and lemon.
Another delectable dish to try in Cyprus is Souvlaki. Usually prepared with pork, chicken, or lamb, it is seasoned with a blend of spices, olive oil, and lemon.

But then there’s the American eggplant vs the European aubergine. Oh please – really? Yes, they’re shaped vaguely like eggs, but that’s like renaming melons “soccerballplants”. Steady on, eh? We don’t have to disagree on the basics that much, surely?

And there the European coriander, which magically transforms in its journey across the Atlantic into the (to our eyes) bafflingly complicated cilantro

Is that a hard “c” like the Italians used? No, wrong language – it’s the soft Spanish “c”. This is the clue to its origins. In Spanish, “cilantro” is the name for the stalks and leaves of the coriander plant. When Spanish culture carried it to Mexico and the term filtered outwards across the Americas, it stuck. 

But in fact it’s even more complicated than that. My friend didn’t know what “coriander” was because she wasn’t into cooking. In the States, cilantro usually means “the leafy bit” – while “coriander” notes the brown-orange dried, crushed and/or powdered seeds of the plant. You’ll find both on sale.

In the UK, however, “cilantro” is absolute gibberish. The term coriander refers to all parts and all possible forms of the entire plant, the Latin name of which (Coriandrum sativum) will lead you inexorably and very sensibly towards coriander with only slight deviations, “drum” turning to “der”. It all feels very sensible to us. The name’s already right there. Why not use it?

Koupepia is a dish wrapped in grape leaves, and coriander imparts a unique flavor to it.
Koupepia is a dish wrapped in grape leaves, and coriander imparts a unique flavor to it.

Of course, this is a potentially circular argument that begs the question: who invented the Latin name? I’ll lay my money on them being English-speaking rather than Spanish.

So there you have it: the definite answer here is – it’s called whichever one everyone calls it, and saying otherwise is just asking for trouble, so it’s best to learn the difference really doesn’t matter in the slightest…

And speaking of trouble: while I was arguing my case to my American friend for coriander being “the correct name” for cilantro, another friend went into the kitchen and found the Cypriot recipe book I’d been using. It confirmed the European spelling, but it also confirmed that I’d picked the smallest and easiest recipe in the whole book – and, most damningly, that I’d needed to refer to a book to prepare it. My deception was over, and my credibility as an amateur chef never quite recovered. 

(I believe you can do much better, by going to Cyprus and learning its food in the most fun of ways. You should definitely do that.)  

Join Wheel & Anchor to explore ‘The Island of Love’ – the cultural crossroads of the Mediterranean, Cyprus. A popular sun destination for Europeans, this gem is less-visited by Canadian travellers. Come with us to discover its fascinating history and outstanding cuisine with influences from the Greeks, Turks, Arabs, and more. Get the details here.

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