The Jewish Roots of Cilantro – Tablet Magazine
On the cold afternoon of January 7, 1486, in the main square of a town called Teruel, in eastern Spain, the Court of the Holy Inquisition sentenced to death the converso Juan Sánchez de Exarch for his Judaizing activities. Among the heretical practices mentioned in the Inquisition recordings were his adherence to Judaism, his repudiation of Jesus in favor of Moses, and his Hebrew eating habits – such as the preparation of a Sabbath pot named after adafina.
Every week on Fridays starting at noon, the Jews of Spain simmered this hearty and nutritious stew for 14 to 18 hours. Its components varied according to household wealth; some versions had lamb, some veal, most both, a few even fish. When meat became unaffordable or inaccessible, a vegetarian variant was devised. Chunks of onions, crushed garlic, chickpeas, carrots, turnips and hard-boiled eggs textured the dish. Spices like cumin, thyme, black pepper, cloves and saffron gave it body and aroma. One last essential ingredient would give this Sephardic delicacy a special flavor: coriander. Some recipes used the aromatic leaves of the herb, sprinkled on top. Juan Sánchez de Exarch’s recipe called for a teaspoon of the plant’s seeds, ground.
Sometimes known as coriander or Chinese parsley, cilantro (Coriandrum sativum L.) – now a staple of Southeast Asian and South American cuisine – was ubiquitous in medieval Spanish Jewish cuisine, a culinary custom shared by Muslims across the Iberian Peninsula.
The plant, native to southern Europe, was cultivated throughout Asia and North Africa for millennia. The first coriander seeds that were earthen have been found in the Nahal Hemar Cave in Israel near the Dead Sea, dating to around 6000 BCE. The plant was known to the ancient Israelites as shit in the Bible and kusbar in the Mishnah. In the Torah he is mentioned twice, both times being compared to manna. In Exodus 16:31“The house of Israel called it manna, and it was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like honey cakes.” And in Numbers 11:7-8“Manna was like coriander seed, and in color it was like bdellium [gum resin]. People went to pick it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot and make patties out of it. It tasted like rich cream.
In addition to using coriander for its nutritional and flavoring value in cooking, the ancient Egyptians used the plant extensively for its medical aphrodisiac properties. They used it so frequently that it is listed in the vast Papyrus Ebers from 1550 BCE. Tutankhamun’s tomb was completed with coriander seeds when discovered. In the Middle Ages, Jews and Moors employee the pungent herb for its stimulating, refreshing and digestive properties. It served to prevent and eliminate flatulence, concealed the taste of purgatives and was used as an infusion for urinary disorders.
Medical evidence for the widespread use of the herb is etched in 13th century cookbooks. writing in Arabic. From the illustrious era, two books have survived, Table Reliefs, About the Delights of Food and Different Dishes written by the Murcian scholar Ibn Razin al Tugibi, and Kitāb al-tabīj-The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook. The latter illustrates the proximity of cultural and religious life enjoyed by Muslims and Jews. The manuscript—currently available at the National Library of France and listed as Arabic 7009, Cooking Recipes—has 543 recipes, 112 of which contain cilantro.
The book is strongly influenced by medicine awareness of the time based on classical antiquity wisdom of Galen, Hippocrates and Dioscorides when the Catholic Church in Europe discouraged these principles – which would help later form Maimonides Scientific Health Diet and Guidelines. He even has a dedicated section linking ingredients to their health benefits, noting, “Coriander goes into every dish and is the specialty of tafaya [lamb’s stew in cilantro juice] and Mahshi [sautéed eggplants with spices]because it blends well with food in the stomach and does not pass quickly until it has been digested.
“Most doctors in the Middle Ages were either Jewish or Muslim. For them, food was medicine and nourishment,” said Hélène Jawhara Piñer, author from Sephardi: Cooking History. Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Diaspora, from the 13th century. “One couldn’t go without the other. It was essential for both groups to maintain the link between health, nutrition and cooking.
Besides the execution of Juan Sánchez de Exarch, beginning in the 15th century, significant numbers of Jewish converts would be publicly burned at the stake solely for professing to observe Judaic dietary habits. In many cases, sharing recipes, having dinner with old Christians, storing particular items such as eggplant, chickpeas or saffron, and even frying them with olive oil – rather than with cheaper lard – were sufficient to warrant prosecution in inquisitorial courts. Nevertheless, many “new Christians” were indifferent to the risks despite the risky consequences that their choice implied. For them, keeping their Jewish heritage and Jewishness alive meant engaging in simple but meaningful acts of culinary dissent.
As evidenced by the book by David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson A drizzle of honey: the life and recipes of the secret Jews of Spain: “For the reverse family struggling both to maintain their traditions and to escape the Inquisition, preparing each Sabbath stew or plate of matzo for Passover was both an act of defiance against the pressures of assimilation and the risks of disclosure and an affirmation of pride in the preservation of family and religious heritage.
Many of the recipes for which these disguised Jews were accused of being Judaizers – usually by their neighbors, friends and servants – included cilantro. Gitlitz and Davidson chronicled the recipes of many of these “heretical” Sephardim who refused to be ethnically and religiously cleansed. Isabel González’s eggplant and onion stew used a teaspoon of dried cilantro leaves; Mayor Gonzalez’s fish and carrot casserole added three freshly chopped tablespoons; and Isabel García’s Chickpeas and Cilantro Honey had 3/4 cup of herb.
The identifying power of food also emerges in the Middle Ages in Spanish literature. Cilantro is variously noted in many poetic cases among the nutritional and culinary customs closely associated with Sephardim. For example, in Francisco Delicado’s early 16th-century dramatic novel Portrait of Lozana: the vigorous Andalusian womanthe protagonist, Aldonza, encounters reverse women soon after his arrival in Rome. Reluctant to say much about themselves because they don’t know her, the women decide to test Aldonza’s Jewishness by asking her for the recipe for sweet donuts (hormigos) or couscous (alcuzcuzu). The task was to determine whether Lozana used olive oil and cilantro to prepare the dishes, ingredients that would betray her Jewish identity. When Lozana begins to give them directions, the first question she asks is, “Do you have cilantro?” If it’s good, I’ll put a little fine flour and a lot of oil in it, and I’ll make you a basin that you’ll never forget, even when you’re dead.
The predilection or distaste of Spanish Jews towards specific foods do its way over the collective bodies of folk narrative ballad poems called Romanceros and cancioneros (poetic songs). Coriander is also present in many of these orally transmitted works, which used culinary metaphors to signal religious affiliation or emphasize social status among Old Christians, Jews, and New Christians: Food denotes privilege and power.
Coriander would lose its prominent place in Sephardic scullery over the generations that followed. The stout, pungent herb was eventually replaced by parsley in the diaspora. With no inquisitorial persecution to haunt them, those Spanish Jews who found refuge in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire used many local alternatives as a substitute, a prerogative of the wandering Jew: to adapt to continue preserving the legacy.
“In the diaspora, the food has been further improved and brightened up. empanadas evolved into bourekas. We have absorbed, adapted and inherited many flavors and ingredients and expanded our extensive repertoire from medieval Spain. Adaptation is part of our resilience and has greatly enriched our Sephardic Iberian cuisine,” said Stella Hanan Cohen, author of the award-winning book Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes.
Despite heated debate and unwanted affection, cilantro has made a tentative comeback in many Jewish kitchens due to its strong taste, versatility, and distinctive flavor. “I use coriander a lot because as a historian it’s a way to reclaim our Sephardic past and it reminds us of our ancestors,” Piñer said. “So eating is more than just eating; it is to recall history.