Saturday, July 07, 2012

I Hate Cilantro

One of my Facebook groups is called, “I CSA: Therefore, I Am.” My colleague, Jaime Wood, and I are getting Community Supported Agriculture boxes this year from a co-worker’s farm, and we decided to set up a FB group to detail our experiences with all those veggies. (And by the way: We’d love to have you join in if you’re interested—look us up!)

We’re having fun with the group, and some interesting topics are coming up, like how do you make a white sauce that’s gluten-free, and what the heck do you do with kohlrabi? This evening, we started talking about cilantro. I happened to mention that I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. Heck: I hate the stuff. And that makes a total of about three things I’ve ever eaten that have given me the queasy shivers and thereafter become mostly un-eatable. Interestingly, they’re all herbs: tarragon, spearmint, and cilantro.

Tarragon tastes… weird to me, although in a different way than cilantro. It just tastes off. Wrong. I’m able to eat it if it’s served to me in a dish and I have to be polite, but I don’t enjoy it. Spearmint bothers me when used in candy or as a flavoring in foods (makes me shudder), but I’m able to drink it—and like it—when it’s one of many ingredients in a tea blend.

But cilantro? There’s just no way. It really, truly, honestly tastes bad, and I’m not exaggerating. It creates this awful, moldy, soapy undertaste that obliterates and screws up whatever it’s served with. Touching it is awful, too, because the aroma clings indelibly: if I have to handle cilantro or breathe its scent, it makes me almost instantly queasy. Sometimes it even causes my airways to constrict, activating my latent asthma. That’s always fun.

And here’s the thing: I’m not alone. Among well-known cilantro haters are none other than Julia Child herself, plus television chefs Fabio Viviani and Ina Garten (“The Barefoot Contessa”). (Kim Kardashian supposedly dislikes it, too, although I hate myself for knowing that.) Search the Web and you’ll find “I Hate Cilantro” groups and Facebook pages along with cilantro surveys claiming it to be the most divisive food of all, the one that creates a clear dividing line. Apparently, there’s no gray area: people either love the stuff or they can’t stand it, and some 10% of us humans are in the latter group. Scientists have discovered that we “haters” actually have a gene expression/mutation that changes how we taste and perceive cilantro. This goes hand-in-hand with recent research explaining how the sense of taste has a strongly genetic basis and varies widely from person to person.

The discussion sent me to the Web, where I found this really interesting New York Times piece about cilantro hatred. It’s full of fascinating facts, like that the word coriander (coriander seed and leafy cilantro are from the same plant) is from the Greek for “bedbug,” linking cilantro’s smell to that of “bug-infested bedclothes.” Or that the perceived soapy smell results from aldehyde chemicals common to cilantro, with the same aldehydes used by bugs to create noxious scents that repel invaders. Also, it seems that most of the “haters” live in parts of the world where cilantro and coriander aren’t part of the traditional cultural diet. Conversely, in countries where cilantro has always been added to lots of foods—Vietnam, Latin America, Portugal—almost no one experiences the tastes-like-a-moldy-bar-of-soap phenomenon.

The NYT article suggests that one may be able to retrain his or her palate to tolerate cilantro, but I suspect that only works for those who simply aren’t that thrilled with the stuff—not for those, like me, whose genes have already been programmed on the subject. In any case, I'll continue to avoid the noxious green, and if you feel the same way, stand proud and tall, knowing you’re not alone.

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