Only after I first came to these foreign lands as an adult did I realize that there existed people who hated cilantro. I could not conceive of this. In India this deeply cut leaf of the coriander plant tops each meal and many spice pastes are centered around it. It is so commonplace that you would have to stop eating to avoid it. It is commonplace as water. Perhaps not that much. It is as common as…ah, say, soap?
Yes, soap. People who intensely dislike cilantro all agree that it reminds them of soap. This is incredible to me. I’m a reasonably clean person, people, and I have had many close encounters with soap. Daily, you might even say. I have eaten cilantro by the fistful. At no time have I had the urge to rub the leaves onto my hands, nor to bite into the bar in the shower.
Soap? What to make of this?
Just to be complete, let us first consider the possibility that there is a secret society of cilantro haters who have secret meetings where they collude on what smell they will all agree cilantro reminds them of. That is a definite possibility, but I’m missing what the motive might be here.
The other possibility is that yes, indeed, cilantro has a secret life where it dabbles in cosmetics. Because the few people who don’t mention soap, say that cilantro reminds them of lotion.
There is a scientific basis for this. There are fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes; the ones found in soap are same or similar to the ones found in cilantro. As this New York Times article by Harold McGee explains, people from cultures that are used to cilantro have learnt from an early age to tamp down the soapiness of cilantro in favor of the herbal and pungent smells.
Which brings us to cilantro chutney. I for one, adore the smell of cilantro so much that the question for me is: how much cilantro flavor can I pack into each cubic inch? The simplest way to do this is by making a paste.
Green chutney was a staple in my household. There was always a steel tin of this condiment in the fridge. In earlier days our cook used a grinding stone, something like this:
Then the Industrial Age dawned in our household and then we used a blender, the picture of which I do not need to show you.
This chutney is great as a spread on bread, or as a side to all kinds of Indian snacks.
- 1 bunch of cilantro, rinsed and roughly chopped, including soft stems
- Anywhere from 1 to 8 serrano chilies, depending on your heat tolerence
- Half a teaspoon salt or to taste
- For sourness, 2 teaspoons of lime juice or 1 teaspoon tamarind paste (optional)
- Half a bunch fresh mint, leaves only (optional)
- 1 – 2 cloves garlic (optional)
- Half an inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced (optional)
- A cubic inch of onion (optional)
- Half a teaspoon sugar (optional)
As you might have noticed there are a number of optional ingredients. Just the first three will give you a serviceable green chutney, but the addition of the others will enhance the flavor in their own unique ways. I particularly recommend adding onion, because onion has this unique characteristic (like salt) to bring out the flavor of the other ingredients, while not overstating its own. A good team player, is our onion.
Put everything into a blender with only the water that clings to the leaves from rinsing, and hit go. Maybe add a tablespoon more water but limit this. You might need to stop, stir, and go a few times, but eventually the blades will catch; and you will have your green chutney.