February 20, 2009
With one of the usual Food & Think writers on a thinking strike, I’ve been asked to plug the brain drain for a while. This works out well, since thinking about food is something I do with great frequency, though not all those thoughts are pleasant.
In fact, not to go negative right off the bat, one of the things I most dislike has recently been in the news: cilantro. This innocuous-seeming herb, featured prominently in many of my favorite Asian and Latin American cuisines, looks deceptively like flat-leaf parsley. But to me—and apparently to a lot of others, as a recent story in the Wall Street Journal describes—it tastes like hairspray. Or soap. Or, my favorite, “pungent grass that may have been urinated upon.”
The haters have formed Facebook groups and Web sites, like IHateCilantro.com, where you can buy T-shirts and pillows that proclaim your displeasure.
Even Julia Child, the original gourmet guru, confessed to despising cilantro (and arugula, though I differ with her there) in a 2002 interview with Larry King.
No other flavor can provoke such an intense negative reaction. You can pelt my taste buds with the hottest habanero, the bitterest broccoli rabe, the funkiest Gorgonzola, and I can take it. But slip so much as one sprig of cilantro into my pico de gallo and, ay dios mío, meal over.
Yet, clearly, since it shows up in so many different places, millions of people around the world enjoy the stuff. Its fans claim it has a fresh taste that provides a nice balance to spicy foods.
It may even provide some health benefits. Scientists have found a compound in cilantro that kills Salmonella bacteria, which could lead to it being used as a food additive to prevent food poisoning, or even as a general disinfectant (which is what it already tastes like).
Other researchers have been looking into whether there is a biological basis to the polarized reactions to cilantro’s flavor. Charles J. Wysocki, a behavioral neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, has been studying identical and fraternal twins to determine whether cilantro aversion is a genetic trait. His early results have shown identical twins to be far more likely than fraternal twins to have a similar opinion of cilantro.
My hope is that one day scientists will develop an antidote to cilantro—something I could carry around in my purse and squeeze a few drops on my food to neutralize the hairspray flavor. Then, I could order a bánh mì or bhel puri without fear.
How do you feel about cilantro? Is there any other flavor that makes you gag?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.