This post was inspired by my husband. I have on a few occasions asked him to please help me buy coriander, or at other times, flat leaf parsley at the supermarket. Understandably, he gets very confused once he’s standing in front of the herb shelf. He’ll call me and ask, what is it called again? Chinese Parsley? or Italian Parsley? Huh? Small? And so we go back and forth trying to figure this out, and he’ll eventually come home with the wrong herb.
In our kitchen, I would most often use the three herbs you see pictured. From left to right, I understand them as Coriander leaf, Chinese Parsley, and Flat Leaf Parsley. But. In the local supermarkets, they are labelled on the packets as, from left to right, Chinese Parsley, Celery Chinese and Italian Parsley. The hand you see pictured belongs to my two year old, so she’s your size reference.
As far as I know, in most cookbooks, or even in the UK and Delhi supermarkets, the herb on the extreme left is known as coriander or cilantro, commonly used in Thai and Indian cooking. If you’re familiar with Jeera Aloo, or Cumin potato, the green leaf they use in the dish is coriander leaf (the cumin they refer to is the seed that’s put in the dish). If you’re familiar with any North Indian cooking at all, the green leaves they use as garnish for just about everything is almost guaranteed to be coriander herb.
If there’s one thing I miss about Delhi, it’s the coriander herb, easily 200-300g per bunch, bound tightly with jute twine and deepest green. The coriander in Singapore is quite literally pale in comparison and packed in such measly amounts in NTUC fair price supermarket, just to make jeera aloo, I’d have to buy two packets of it. Coriander herb is lovely as a garnish for Chinese-inspired soupy noodles, on top of anything Indian as it cuts through the richness of the spices, in a salsa, or a simple tuna sandwich. I love coriander, to me it feels zingy and refreshing. I do know of people who don’t like it though and find it too pungent. I’m not sure why Coriander is referred to as Chinese Parsley in Singapore, now. A few years ago it was labelled as coriander. And the funnier thing is, if you look closely to packets that come from Malaysia (instead of Thailand), you will see in smaller print the malay name for the herb – daun ketumbar. Ketumbar means Coriander, and is the name used for this leaf as well as the spice, coriander seeds. So on the packets you will see simultaneously the name in English, Chinese Parsley, and in Malay, Daun Ketumbar.
The middle herb is labelled in Singapore as Celery Chinese, which I suppose isn’t too far off the mark, although some years ago it was labelled as Chinese Parsley (you see my confusion??). It smells and tastes like any celery you would find labelled as just ‘Celery’, in Singapore as well as abroad, however it doesn’t have the thick, curved, crunchy stems like traditionally known celery would have. In Malay, we call it Daun Sop which is directly translated as Soup Leaf. Yup. Soup Leaf. In Malay cooking, it’s used as a garnish for soups (and when I say soup, I mean, broth-type soups; with Malay food anything referred to as a soup, by default, wouldn’t have cream in it. If it did it would be referred to as kuah, a gravy, eaten with copious amounts of white rice and probably a protein or vegetable, not as a dish eaten by itself. And the cream would actually be coconut milk, not dairy cream). If you eat Mee Soto, or Mee Rebus, it will inevitably be garnished with daun sop. Celery, the crunchy stem kind, is used in stir fries in Chinese cooking, as well as other dishes, I’m sure, but I’m uncertain how ‘Celery Chinese’ specifically would be used in Chinese cooking. I think generally speaking, this herb is NOT used in Thai cooking. I have however eaten at a restaurant very popular within the Muslim community where their salads that are meant to be Thai use, not coriander, but daun sop. I was horrified and then very saddened and then very angry. Dude, you’re not using the right herb! Get it right! You’re a restaurant! Endorsed by a famous chef! C’mon! Suffice to say, I am not a fan.
When we were in the UK and in Delhi, where I understandably would not be able to find daun sop, I would just buy a packet of celery with the most leaves still attached, and use those leaves, because, really, it’s the same thing! In London, if I had stumbled upon a bunch of herbs that resembled daun sop it wouldn’t actually be daun sop, it would be what is called there as Flat Leaf Parsley, and the two smell and taste very different.
In Singapore, Flat Leaf Parsley is not called Flat Leaf Parsley, it is called Italian Parsley! Although I daresay it isn’t used exclusively in Italian cooking. I thought it would at least be labelled as Mediterranean Parsley, but no, in Singapore it’s apparently Italian. If I remember correctly, the one pictured above is the same variety I would find in the big chain supermarkets in London, about the same size as coriander herbs. The reason I say, if I found a bunch that looked like daun sop, is because there are bigger varieties that are the size of the daun sop pictured here. But again, a rich, vibrant green that reminds you of summer holidays abroad, where lemons and oranges grow, and the sea is blue, and you want to eat al fresco at every meal. Those kinds of mega parsley would be found where the middle eastern grocers are, bunches of them in crates lined up outside the shops, along with maybe pomegranate fruits, and pine nuts. Those end up in big bowls of gorgeous, punchy tabbouleh, or sprinkled generously over a turkish lamacun the way you would find iceberg lettuce in your fast-food burger, but so much better!
So ladies and gentleman, be confused no more. If in Singapore, you find these three herbs in the local supermarket and your spouse can’t tell the difference between them and is only reading labels to guide them in their purchase, this will help you tell your spouse exactly which herb to buy for you. You will know that the names are incorrect, but you know better and your spouse will now buy you the herb you actually need in your kitchen regardless of the labelling.