The taste of Asia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am

If there's a herb that is associated with Chinese cuisine more than any other, it is coriander. The herb is so essential to Chinese fish dishes that wet-market vendors usually put a few stalks of it (and a couple of spring onions) into the bag when you buy fresh fish - the herb is said to ameliorate any fishy taste.

The delicate leafy herb has a strong, distinctive flavour that some people detest - they describe it as tasting of soap.

Coriander is also known as cilantro, Chinese parsley (it resembles flat leaf Italian parsley) and yuen sai. The plant has small, tan-coloured seeds that are used as a spice. Fresh coriander stalks are usually sold with their roots removed, which is a waste - the roots have an intense flavour and are used in many Thai dishes, usually after being pounded or finely chopped.

When buying fresh coriander, look for stalks that are bushy and leafy, rather than leggy. The leaves and stalks should be evenly green and unwilted. Store them in the fridge after wrapping the stalks in moist paper towels.

If you have really fresh whole fish, the best preparation is to steam it. Cut two or three deep slashes on each side of the fish and rub a little rice wine over the surface and in the cavity of the cleaned fish. Place it on a shallow dish large enough to hold it comfortably then put a couple of spring onions in the cavity. Drizzle soy sauce over the fish then steam it until just cooked (overcooking makes the fish tough). Remove from the steamer and pile a large handful of leafy coriander stalks and shredded spring onion on top. Pour very hot oil over the coriander and spring onion to wilt them. Serve immediately.

For a refreshing salad, pull off and discard the thick stalks from a large quantity of fresh coriander. Place in a bowl and add julienned spring onion. Drizzle with soy sauce, sesame oil and chilli oil (or a little chilli paste). Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds, toss to combine thoroughly and serve.