Why coriander root is so important

I love ancient Thai food and I am a big fan of coriander root which I believe is the heart and soul of Thai cooking. So much so that even my website used to be called www.corianderroute.co.uk. and I used to campaign to get the supermarkets to stock it.

It is the foundation upon which many dishes are built. It not only adds taste, texture and depth but it enables the user to create the foundation pastes that give Thai food its unique flavour.

Sadly this unique flavour is very quickly being lost. Both in the UK and indeed in Thailand the use of pre-made pastes is becoming widespread. Although there are some good pre-made curry pastes out there curry is only scratching the surface of the role of coriander root.

Currently, outside of London, it is not easy to get your hands on coriander root in the UK., we often get coriander bunches with the root cut off. This happens for two reasons, one is that it is cheaper to import without the root as it would be expensive to clean them and secondly that there is no real demand for coriander root in the UK because of the lack of understanding of its value.

Coriander root is as fundamental to Thai food as the onion is to British food.

Just imagine the limits to your cooking without this British staple!

One of the things that really worries me is that without the root Thai people who come to live in the UK are not able to pass on their original recipes and their heritage to their children. Once this link is broken, the knowledge of this delicious cuisine will be lost forever.

Without coriander root many dishes are severely compromised and the understanding of the use of the food culture is lost.

The commercial sector is currently also affected. I often speak to people who believe that their Thai restaurant is cooking in an authentic manner. However, without access to coriander root the food has to be compromised and commercialised. If you don’t believe me I urge you to ask your Thai restaurant to show you a coriander root –  I’m sure you will find that in the majority of cases they do not have any roots to show you so they have no choice but to make anything that needs roots from pre-made pastes.

There are many dishes based around what I call “magic paste”. That is coriander root pounded in a pestle and mortar with some coarse salt, whole white peppercorns and garlic. These four essentials are the foundation of many a magical dish.

The range of Thai food you can cook without it is severely restricted. Many people will say that if you cannot get it you can use the leaves as a substitute but in my experience you cannot do this successfully.

Thai root is so strongly flavoured and importantly, very dry. Therefore when you make a paste it holds its structure well and you can achieve a balance of coriander flavour with the garlic without making the paste sloppy.

If you use leaves as a substitute the curry paste becomes too wet and you can never get the weak flavouring to balance with the garlic.

Also some say that you can use the roots from the supermarket pots but in my experience you have exactly the same problem with them.

If you seriously want to experience the full flavour of these dishes you need to get your hands on proper Thai root  – it’s nectar of the gods!

When you finally get your hands on some you will need to clean the roots well. Depending how dirty they are  I either use a knife to scrape away the soil, or at worst, soak them in cold water. However, you must make sure you dry them thoroughly before storing away.

The best thing to do is to immediately cut the roots from the leaves. You use both the leaves and roots in cooking but the leaves go off faster than the roots if you don’t use them. The leaves can only be used fresh.  Store the roots separately in the fridge in an airtight jar for about a week.

If you wrap them carefully and put them in the freezer they will keep for several months but then you need to use them from frozen.

But how do we get the root?

Hmm – this is a problem that has haunted me for many sleepless nights.

If there is a demand there is a supply – its a simple business principle.

I would like to draw attention to the importance of this key ingredient and hopefully soon one the of the major supermarkets will supply and stock the root and make this fantastic food heritage available for all.

Maybe if enough of us shout loudly enough they may well hear our plea!

Carole Mason

Freelance food writer - Author of Mae's Ancient Thai Food

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Carole Mason

If you would like to work with me or try my food please get in touch with me at carole@carolemason.co.uk