Cumin and coriander are spices that blend nicely enough together to be featured as partners in a variety of culinary uses, from Indian spice mixes to Southeast Asian curry pastes. Although they complement each other well, they are far from the same. Cumin is savory and earthy, while coriander has a sweet tinge and is even used in some pastries.
Use ground cumin in Indian dishes or to add depth to a chili powder mixture. Use ground coriander more as a background flavor, to complement other flavors, such as cumin.
Cumin and Coriander Similarities
Cumin and coriander are both seeds with the intense, concentrated flavor that comes with this part of the plant. They are dried to preserve shelf life and deepen flavors, and both of these seeds can be used either whole or ground. In their whole form they can be somewhat overwhelming but, when ground, they integrate nicely with other elements of a dish. Toasting the whole seeds before grinding them adds an extra layer of savoriness.
Both cumin and coriander are typically used in curries, although the flavor of cumin is distinctive enough to be predominant. The two spices are frequently paired and both are readily available in both whole and ground options at typical supermarkets. In addition to the familiar curry powders, where they often appear side by side, cumin and coriander also make strong partners in the Egyptian spice mix dukkah, which uses both along with a combination of ground nuts and seeds, as well as thyme and ground chili.
Cumin and Coriander Substitute
Second to black pepper, ground cumin seed is the most widely used spice in the world. There really isn't any direct substitute for it because its flavor is so distinctive. You can replace ground cumin with ground coriander, but you'll end up with a flavor that is somewhat more sweet than earthy, although it may call to mind recipes from a similar region. If you're using coriander as a substitute because you don't like the taste of cumin, then the substitution could work fine for you. But if you're making the substitution because you don't have any cumin in your cupboard, you may wind up with a dish whose flavor is different from your plan.
It's less problematic to substitute ground cumin for ground coriander than to substitute ground coriander for ground cumin. Used judiciously, cumin can gracefully take a back seat to other flavors while the taste of coriander is more likely to just seem odd and out of place.
Leaves Vs. Seeds
The fresh herb cilantro actually comes from coriander leaves, which are from the same plant as coriander seeds. Cilantro is commonly used in Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cuisines, among others. Tasting a cilantro leaf alongside a coriander seed, it's hard to find any common ground between the two related flavors. However, when the coriander plant first starts to bolt, the immature seeds taste distinctly like both coriander and cilantro.
Many people have a strong aversion to coriander leaves, although many others love their flavor. Researchers have even identified a genetic sequence associated with thinking that cilantro tastes like soap. Although their flavors are genetically related, strong aversions to coriander seed are far less common. If you have an aversion to coriander leaves, substitute fresh parsley for color and for an herby flavor that is unlikely to clash with other flavors in the recipe.
You can eat the leaves of the cumin plant as well, although they are used far less widely in recipes than coriander leaves and you almost never see them for sale at supermarkets or farmers markets. Cumin leaves have a light, tangy flavor that makes an unusual addition to salads.
Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.