Le Mai via Flickr
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Cilantro’s Jewish Roots

The herb was an essential part of Sephardic cooking for centuries

Orge Castellano
February 04, 2022
Le Mai via Flickr
Le Mai via Flickr

On the cold afternoon of Jan. 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 records were his adherence to Judaism, his repudiation of Jesus in favor of Moses, and his Hebraic foodways—such as the preparation of a Sabbath pot by the name of adafina.

Each week, on Friday from noon onward, the Jews of Spain would simmer this hearty and nourishing stew for 14 to 18 hours. Its components varied depending on the household’s affluence; some versions contained lamb, others veal, most of them both, a few even fish. When meat became unaffordable or unattainable, a vegetarian variant would be devised. Chunks of onions, smashed garlic, chickpeas, carrots, turnips, and hard-boiled eggs textured the dish. Spices like cumin, thyme, black pepper, cloves, and saffron furnished it with body and aroma. One last de rigueur ingredient would give this Sephardic delight a distinctive tang: cilantro. Some recipes used the herb’s aromatic leaves, 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.)—today a staple of Southeast Asian and South American cuisine—was ubiquitous to medieval Spanish Jewish cooking, a culinary custom shared by Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula.

The plant, native to southern Europe, has been cultivated throughout Asia and northern Africa for millennia. The earliest coriander seeds that have been unearthed were found in the Nahal Hemar cave in Israel near the Dead Sea, dating back to circa 6000 BCE. The plant was known to the ancient Israelites as gad in the Bible and kusbar in the Mishnah. In the Torah, it is mentioned twice, both times being compared to manna. In Exodus 16:31: “The house of Israel named it manna, and it was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey.” And in Numbers 11:7-8: “The manna was like coriander seed, and in color, it was like bdellium [gum resin]. The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes. It tasted like rich cream.”

Besides utilizing cilantro for its nutritional and flavoring value in the kitchen, ancient Egyptians widely used the plant for its medical aphrodisiac properties. They used it so frequently that it is listed in the extensive Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BCE. Tutankhamun’s tomb was filled with cilantro seeds when it was uncovered. In the Middle Ages, Jews and Moors employed the pungent herb for its stimulant, cooling, and digestive properties. It served to prevent and eliminate flatulence, conceal purgatives’ taste, and was used as a tea for urinary complaints.

The medical evidence of the herb’s widespread use is etched in 13th-century cookbooks written in Arabic. From the illustrious era, two books survived, Reliefs of the Tables, About the Delicacies of the Food and the Different Dishes written by Murcian scholar Ibn Razin al Tugibi, and Kitāb al-tabīj-The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook. The latter illustrates the closeness of the cultural and religious life enjoyed by Muslims and Jews. The manuscript—currently available in the National Library of France and listed as Arabe 7009, Recettes de cuisine—has 543 recipes, of which 112 contain coriander.

The book is heavily influenced by the medical knowledge of the era based on the classical antiquity wisdom of Galen, Hippocrates, and Dioscorides when the Catholic Church in Europe discouraged these principles—which would later help shape Maimonides’ scientific health regimen and guidelines. It even has a dedicated section linking ingredients with its health benefits, noting: “Coriander enters into all dishes and is the specialty of tafâyâ [lamb’s stew in cilantro juice] and mahshi [sautéed eggplants with spices], because it goes well with foods in the stomach, and does not pass through rapidly before it has been digested.”

“Most of the physicians in the Middle Ages were either Jews or Muslim. For them, food was medicine and nourishment,” said Hélène Jawhara Piñer, author of Sephardi: Cooking the History. Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Diaspora, from the 13th Century Onwards. “One could not go without the other. It was essential for both groups to maintain the connection between health, nutrition, and cooking.”

Apart from Juan Sánchez de Exarch’s execution, from the 15th century onward, a significant number of converted Jews would be publicly burned at the stake solely for professing to observe Judaic dietary habits. In many cases, sharing recipes, dining with old Christians, storing particular items such as eggplants, chickpeas, or saffron, and even frying with olive oil—rather than cheaper lard—was enough to justify prosecution before the inquisitorial courts. Nonetheless, many “New Christians” were unconcerned by the risks despite the hazardous consequences their choice entailed. For them, keeping their Jewish heritage and Jewishness alive meant engaging in simple but meaningful modest deeds of cookery dissent.

As reflected in David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson’s book A Drizzle of Honey: The Life and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews: “For the converso family struggling both to maintain its traditions and to evade the Inquisition, the preparation of each Sabbath stew or plate of matzo for Passover was at once 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.”

A great number 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 “guilty-of-heresy” Sephardic individuals who refused to be ethnically and religiously cleansed. Isabel González’s eggplant and onion stew used one teaspoon of dried cilantro leaves; Mayor Gonzalez’s fish and carrot casserole added three tablespoons chopped fresh; and Isabel García’s chickpeas and honey with cilantro had 3/4 cup of the herb.

The identifying power of food also emerges in the Middle Ages in Spanish literature. Cilantro is variously mentioned in many poetic instances among the nutrition and culinary customs closely associated with the Sephardim. For example, in Francisco Delicado’s early-16th-century dramatic novel Portrait of Lozana: The Lusty Andalusian Woman, the protagonist, Aldonza, meets some converso women shortly after her arrival in Rome. Reluctant to reveal much about themselves because they don’t know her, the women decide to put Aldonza’s Jewishness to the test by asking her for the recipe for sweet fritters (hormigos) or couscous (alcuzcuzu). The task was to determine whether Lozana used olive oil and coriander to prepare the dishes—ingredients that would give away her Jewish identity. When Lozana begins giving them directions, the first question she asks is, “And do you have coriander? If it’s good, I’d put a bit of nice flour and a lot of oil in it, and I’d make you a basinful that you’ll never forget, even when you’re dead.”

The predilection or distaste of Spanish Jews toward specific edibles also made its way onto the collective bodies of folk narrative ballad poems called Romanceros and Cancioneros (poetic chants). Cilantro is also present in many of these orally transmitted works, which frequently utilized culinary metaphors to either signal religious affiliation or emphasize social status among old Christians, Jews, and new Christians: Food denotes privilege and power.

Cilantro would lose its pride of place within the Sephardic sculleries throughout the generations that followed. The robust, 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 under the Ottoman Empire used many local alternatives as a substitute, a prerogative of the wandering Jew: adapting to keep on preserving the legacy.

“In the diaspora, food was further enhanced and enlivened. Empanadas evolved to bourekas. We absorbed, adapted, and inherited many flavors and ingredients and extended our extensive repertoire from medieval Spain. Adaptation is part of our resilience, and it enriched our Iberian Sephardic cuisine tremendously,” said Stella Hanan Cohen, author of the award-winning book Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish family recipes from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes.

Despite frequently sparking heated debate and unwelcome affection, cilantro has made a shy return in many Jewish kitchens due to its sharp taste, versatility, and distinctive flavor. “I use cilantro a lot because, as someone who is a historian, it is a way of reclaiming our Sephardic past and is reminiscent of our ancestors,” said Piñer. “So to eat is much more than just getting nourishment; it’s recalling history.”

The Recipe

Arroz con Garbanzos (Chickpea Rice)

Arroz con Garbanzos (Chickpea Rice)

Orge Castellano is a Madrid-based journalist, writer, and social scientist.

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