Five thousand years ago, coriander seeds from the Mediterranean were being carried along the Silk Road in the saddlebags of caravans, on their way to enrich the cuisine of ancient Cathay with their orange-and-sage flavor. A millennium before the birth of Christ, Egyptian mourners placed jars of the spice beside gilded sarcophagi to accompany spirits departing for the Land of the Dead. And while Aztecs gathered leaves of the Coriandrum sativurn to season stews, Chinese dined on the plant in hope of making themselves immortal ... or put its juice to more immediate use as a gargle to ease toothaches. Furthermore, for generations coriander has been eaten as one of the bitter herbs of the Feast of Passover, and Bombay nights have been made hotter with coriander-spiced curries.
In summer, Chinese and Mexican produce stores carry fresh coriander leaves, disguised under the names Chinese parsley or cilantro, and your local supermarket keeps boxes of the seeds on its shelves at all seasons. The seeds can spice up sausages or give confections and puddings a sunny lift. In fact, the candy coatings of cake sprinkles often conceal the light brown spheres. A teaspoon of the spice will light up the flavor of an apple pie. And by adding 1/3 cup of the chopped leaves and half a teaspoon of cumin to a soup of meatballs, carrots, onions, and zucchini, you can approximate a dish popular south of the border: sopo de albondigas.
Since coriander has naturalized widely throughout the U.S., you can bet that you won't have to fuss over its cultivation. As long as it's drenched in sunlight, the plant thrives in average, well-drained soil, and overenrichment will only diminish its savor.
In late April or early May, plant coriander seeds (available at most garden stores) in 1/4"-to 1/2"-deep drills, eight or ten inches apart. Don't expect to see a sprout for at least a week, and the seeds may laze in the soil as long as 20 days before germinating. And be fore-warned: You're not likely to enjoy the smell of the intensely green, feathered foliage — the plant's name was justifiably derived from the Greek word for bedbug. However, the reek fades to a pleasant scent when coriander matures. By late June or early July, parasols of pinkish white to lavender florets will start unfurling at the top of two- or even three-foot-high plants, and because coriander pollen is pink, your garden will soon be humming with rosy-knickered bees. In the fall, the shiny, striped fruits will turn into fawn-colored, hollow, ribbed balls about 1/8" in diameter. Then — quickly, before they shatter and reseed the plot — gather in your sweet-smelling harvest. When the seeds have been dried in a sunny, airy place, you can remove the adhering husks by rubbing them between your hands.
Feel free to experiment with your harvest. The orangey tang of coriander transforms beets, pickles, blancmanges, cakes, cookies, and liqueurs. And if you find yourself driven to insomnia thinking of even more uses for this herb, just pour a couple of pints of boiling water over half an ounce of the crushed seeds. The ancients thought that a wineglassful of this tea was a ticket straight to the arms of Morpheus ... and maybe they were right.