Smell of the week: coriander

Coriander, or Coriandrum sativum, is a versatile plant of vague origins. It may have originated in Eurasia but is also found in Africa–archaeological evidence suggests it was cultivated in ancient Egypt. Wherever it came from, I’d be lost without it! Both the leaves and seeds are key ingredients in many world cuisines. My favorite uses are for pico de gallo, my variant of chimichurri sauce, and (of course) vindaloo.

Like many herbs, coriander has potential health benefits, chiefly in its high levels of antioxidants in the leaves. Due to a high level of aldehydes and a potential genetic effect, some people don’t like coriander because it is perceived as soapy. Intercropped with tomatoes, coriander masks tomato odor volatiles that are attractive to the silverleaf white fly and reduces infestation with these pests.

At the chemical level, the main volatile in coriander seed is d-linalool. Linalools are terpene alcohols and commonly found in flowers and spices. It’s pleasant scent makes it a key ingredient in the decorative cosmetics  industry. Other important volatiles are pinenes (alpha and beta), diterpenes, p-cymeme, and decylaldehyde (the ‘soapy’ compound)–even a touch of camphor (perhaps a future smell of the week!). Coriander leaves (cilantro to some) have been less studied but are mainly saturated and unsaturated aldehydes 83%) and alcohols (17%).

While there are many cilantro (leaves, not the seeds) haters out there, some can be converted  I do detect the soapiness, especially if the leaves aren’t very fresh, but it doesn’t seem to bother me much. If not in a hurry, I tend to crush my cilantro with the knife edge, which apparently may reduce the aldehydes. Maybe I’ll conduct an experiment with crushing versus not-crushing. Either way, it’s hard to avoid in most cuisine and I am glad I am not a cilantro hater.



Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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