Creepy coriander invades all food in India, and it’s disgusting

Woe be upon you!
Woe be upon you!
Image: AP Photo/Larry Crowe
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I never thought my life would come to a point where the wimpy coriander would be worth my hate. But it has.

This isn’t what I felt about coriander always. For I had learnt to coexist with the green, flaky, wannabe-marijuana, floating occasionally in rasam, or some versions of dal and sambar. In the last few years, though, the pesky leaf has invaded almost every dish I care for.

Not that I eat out very often. But when I place an order for a chilli mushroom at a Chinese joint, I expect to see stir-fried chunky stuff strewn across a bowl of spicy and intense red or brown gravy. I imagine the moment when the dish and I will meet like lovers separated by time. But what arrives is a miniature football field with lush green grass that I have to dig beneath to find my love. And that’s just the beginning of the agony.

Neither food nor love feels the same, having been being sullied like that.

Devious invasion

At first, I wrote it off as a freak incident. Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t such a nuisance.

Boring buffets were the first to hide their evident banality under fresh coriander that didn’t belong wherever it was. Chhole, for one, remained untainted for long—but not forever. It was gradual annexation.

Marriages, conventions, press conferences, middle-class society dinners—they all began with a sprinkle and ended with that carpet. They just could not suppress the cook’s disdain for his job or paycheque.

Meanwhile, the food and I suffered.

One could live with a dash of dhaniya in dal, rasam, and paneer—a “dash,” mind you—but the cursed mediocre chefs did not spare even tandoori chicken or seekh kebabs from the copious green showers. If one wanted coriander salad, why ask for barbecued or roasted meat in the first place?

In any case, idli did not ask for, and chaat does not need, validation from coriander.

In the early days of the epidemic, only Indian food was infected. As the years rolled on, the leafy abomination crept into foreign food recipes.

It wasn’t enough that sandwiches had mint and coriander chutney inside, the blithering vendor would add more to the top as he served. If this isn’t insecurity, then what is?

Soon it came to dominate the mighty Chinese. This slow takeover served a lesson in guerrilla strategies for the Indian Army.

I once witnessed the sheer audacity at an elite Chinese restaurant in south Mumbai in 2013. Five years before that evening, I had experienced a heartwarming D.I.Y wok at the same place—without the green goblin. I had returned to relive a good memory, but alas, the coriander brigade was in charge now. Chicken Manchurian looked like shredded spinach, and the thick layer of coriander had to be eaten like it was lasagna.

Grass is for the bovines.
Grass is for the bovines.
Image: Quartz/Sriram Iyer

By 2014, pizza and pasta were under its hegemony. No one protested. Even the guileless french fries had developed green freckles. No one did as much as notice. Today, beer has coriander in it. Lord, the apathy!

Indeed, it’s everywhere. Biriyani, khichdi, curd, buttermilk, sauted baby potatoes, roasted eggplant, fried okra, chopped carrots, beetroots, cucumber and, apparently, even the greens needed their poor cousin to make them look edible.

The revolution seemed complete with the profane dhaniya rice coming into existence.

Is this some kind of mindless division of labour? May be there is a callous guy waiting just outside every restaurant’s kitchen, assigned to hurl a handful of coriander on any dish that comes out of the door. And he does so indiscriminately. Is this what Karl Marx had warned us about?

I do strongly suspect, though, that dhaniya affects the country’s economics. And I’m pretty sure India’s chief statistician did not account for it while estimating agriculture growth at a measly 2.1% earlier this year. The blighted green leaf alone can skew the figure to double digits.

I realised there were more people like me popping their veins when I watched a video saying that the disgust for cilantro was “genetic.” There, victim shaming. I wasn’t surprised.

The pattern was all too obvious, only for those looking.

Over-reacting? Oh puhlease!

People try to placate me. “It’s ok, I don’t mind coriander in my food. In fact I have never noticed it in my food till you mentioned,” they say.

If you like it that way, good for you. But for those on the fence, were you given a choice?

Indeed, coriander is innocuous. Till a flake doesn’t stick to your palate, it doesn’t kill you. But if you are trying to scrape it off with your tongue in the middle of a date, rest assured, you are not getting any more love than a needy neighbour’s dog.

When you run into your office crush, while stepping out of the canteen after lunch, there is a good chance your charming smile has been tarnished by a green blot right next to your buck teeth.

One can risk losing love, gravitas, and a lot more, but for what? An insipid leaf that does not enrich the experience of eating food one bit. Today, restaurants in India—particularly in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi—won’t serve you any dish without what they proudly call garnish.

If anyone has watched MasterChef or even Google Images, they know that garnishing never involves more than a leaf or two, placed on the plate as a non-invasive lure. It is not meant to make you feel bovine, at least not without your consent.

This is leaf jihad, and I will not put up with it.