On March 10, the charismatic chef Ranveer Brar posted a petition on his Instagram page to make coriander the national herb of India. He got an overwhelming response from his followers, and change.org approached him to carry it on their platform. It now has over 18000 signatures and their target is to reach 25000. The chef speaks to Lounge about his petition, shares tips on using coriander and talks about his favourite ingredients.
What prompted you to start the petition?
It all began with a post on Instagram with me holding a placard saying ‘petition to make Dhaniya the national herb’. It gained momentum with comments, likes and shares, and then change.org called saying ‘why don’t you do it’. I believe it is a fantastic cause independent of whether or not it becomes the national herb; at least we are starting a conversation about giving herbs a national identity. People have questioned why dhaniya and not curry leaves, or why do we need a national herb. For me, it’s not a case of choosing one over another and I understand that nationalism is not the most popular term right now. The idea was to acknowledge something that I love and give it an identity. It's akin to naming your favourite belan. Why can't dhaniya be acknowledged as something more than just being a herb that one bargains for free during sabzi shopping?
Do you name your utensils?
I do! For example, my grill tong is Manohar inspired by someone I once worked with in a hotel. He was a commis chef named Manohar who was adept at multiple cuisines. My multi-purpose tong is similar, and it can used as a spoon or ladle. In my professional kitchen that’s used for shoots we name all utensils so that they are easier to find. The ladles have names, like Smiley or Happy, written on them. We have a well decorated and expensive patila from Kashmir called Ramkumar. I feel naming them also helps me build a relationship, you know.
You often talk about the origins of ingredients. How did dhaniya find its way into our kitchens?
It is believed that coriander was grown in the southern Italy before it travelled to Asia through the Silk Route. In fact, they say dhaniya entered India through China. It becomes a bone of contention for my audience when I say ingredients which have now become intrinsic to Indian cooking didn’t originate here. But, it is the nature of food to travel which mesmerises me. Be it the dals of Punjab, tangy curries of Assam, kothimbir vadis of Maharashtra or rasams of Tamil Nadu, dhaniya unites us all.
How does one preserve the delicate flavours of coriander while cooking?
Coriander is a typical root-to-fruit(leaves) ingredient. Its roots are extensively used in stews, niharis and shorbas, because they have a nice woody and floral flavour that requires long braising to come through. The stems go into kadhai preparations, and leaves are used in chutneys, marinades and garnishes. There is a marinade that Punjabis have used forever by pounding coriander with ginger and green chillies, for meat preparations. If you notice, the cooking time reduces as one graduates from roots to stems to leaves. This is the basic guideline. The flavour molecules in the leaves are so volatile that one would lose about 20% of the top notes if it is cut and kept for an hour. To preserve its delicate and fresh flavours, chop the leaves in the last minute just before garnishing.
How to store coriander to reduce wastage?
Keep it away from water as much as possible. A lot of times we tend to wash fresh coriander as soon as it comes home, not give it enough time to dry and then put it in the fridge which leads to spoilage. If coriander is refrigerated in ziplock bags, always keep a moist tissue with it to prevent drying. If one wants to keep coriander fresh after taking it out of the fridge, before the cooking begins, put it in chilled water. Avoid iced water which bruises the delicate leaves. Chilled water strengthens it and makes it more springy.
If dhaniya is your first love, what are the second and third?
The second has to be black pepper. As somebody who loves food anthropology and history, I always say that we owe the current map of the world to black pepper. If it wasn't for the quest of pepper, one wouldn’t have discovered Americas, and countries like India or parts of Africa wouldn't have been colonised. I think we owe a lot of our modern geographical boundaries to this beautiful spice. Among ingredients, my third love would be gur (jaggery). The earthiness of the molasses combined with the hint of spice is unique to jaggery Any dish that one cooks needs the four rasas—sweet, sour, savoury and salty. And, there’s no shame in adding a smidgen of jaggery if your onions or certain vegetables are not sweet enough. It musky flavour is deeper than sugar.