Mr. Green Genes
The soapy truth about cilantro.
Back in my day, growing up in the Midwest, we didn't have cilantro. When we sat down to dinner after trudging five miles in a blizzard home from school, our meals were flavored with salt and pepper, not exotic herbs. My mom had a container of dried oregano, I think, that had been handed down to her by my grandmother and might have been grown before the "war to end all wars." In fancy restaurants, you might encounter basil. But that was the extent of our culinary experimentation. Cilantro? Is that some newfangled floor-cleaning product?
The rise in mentions of “cilantro,”
as charted by the New York Times.
We were hardly alone in our cilantro ignorance. According to a nifty tool on the New York Times' website, Times Chronicle, mentions of "cilantro" in the pages of the nation's newspaper of record tracked at pretty much zero until the mid-1970s. The graph shoots up from there, however, reaching 0.19% of all articles by 2000 and peaking at 0.24% by 2004. That means in 2004 almost 1 in every 400 articles in the Times used the term "cilantro" — at a time when the newspaper was already pretty busy with mentions of "Iraq" (7.4%), George W. Bush (7.65%) and "weapons of mass destruction" (0.46%).
Today, you can hardly open a menu without encountering cilantro in everything from traditional Mexican or Asian fare to newfangled uses such as pesto or cocktails. "Our special today," the snooty waiter will intone while mentally calculating your tipping potential, "is cilantro-wrapped sea bass with a cilantro-lemongrass emulsion, served atop cilantro-pesto lentils with a garnish of cilantro-flavored cilantro."
Future generations will look back on this era as the Age of Cilantro. ("Didn't they also invent the Internet back then? And put a rover on Mars?" "Well, yes, but mostly they just ate cilantro.")
To all of you out there who are now salivating at the mere thought of that suddenly popular herb, I have a confession to make. Living as we do in the cilantro-mad Southwest, where salsa is served at every meal beginning with breakfast, this will seem especially shocking. You might want to put down your cilantro-laced salsa and chips before reading on, lest you spill in a convulsion of surprise and horror.
I hate cilantro. Simply loathe the stuff. It tastes like soap to me.
Before you condemn me and start hauling out the pitchforks and torches, however, you should know that I can't help it — and I'm not alone. According to a 2012 study by the consumer genetics firm 23andMe, cilantro aversion is genetic. (My daughter hates the stuff, too.)
Surprisingly, the study suggested that cilantro-haters think the herb tastes like soap not because we can't properly appreciate its flavors but because we experience some of cilantro's qualities all too well. The study of nearly 30,000 people identified specific gene variants linked to a dislike of cilantro. The most important are among those controlling the sense of smell, especially a gene labeled OR6A2. This gene encodes an olfactory receptor that increases sensitivity to the aldehyde compounds (organic chemicals formed by the oxidation of alcohols) that give cilantro its distinctive taste.
In short, it's not me — it's you. If you could only experience cilantro in all its soapy awfulness the way I can, you'd rush out to napalm the fields where this culinary monstrosity is grown.
Famed chef Julia Child hated cilantro, too. Worldwide, 17% of European peoples, 14% of those of African descent and, surprisingly, 21% of east Asians are likewise genetically predisposed to think cilantro tastes like soap. Or, well, floor cleaner.
So, since we cilantro-haters can't help it (It's in our genes! We were born this way!), is it too much to ask for a little consideration from the culinary world? A sort of cilantro cease-fire? For starters, cooks could stop putting cilantro in places where it doesn't belong, where we would never think to ask, "Could you hold the cilantro, please?" Those are the dishes where we don't realize our mistake until it's too late and we've bitten into what apparently contains Ivory soap.
(The doubters among you may wish to conduct a little experiment at this point, to walk a mile in my shoes, so to speak. Pick one of your favorite foods and take a big bite. Now, with your taste buds still swimming in deliciousness, squirt a tablespoon of Dawn dish soap into your mouth. Not so yummy all of a sudden, is it?)
Cilantro has no place in Italian, German or French food (ask Julia Child), beverages of any kind, dessert or, heaven knows, candy. Can we agree on these ground rules? No? Would you like to try the Dawn test again? OK, thank you.
I will grudgingly admit that cilantro might reasonably be included in Thai food and Mexican dishes. Is it too much to ask, however, that this nefarious herb be chopped in large enough pieces that it can easily be picked out? Better still, put cilantro only on top of the dish, as a sort of garnish, so it and an inch or two of potentially contaminated food below the cilantro can simply be excised and given to the dog. (I'd worry that some dogs might also be sensitive to cilantro's soapy side and this might seem like cruelty to animals, but we are talking about an animal that licks its own butt.)
As an oppressed minority, cilantro-haters also demand full disclosure of cilantro as an ingredient on menus and in any packaged food product. No more vague mentions of "herbs and spices" or "natural flavorings." Ideally, we'd like the same sort of consideration given people with peanut allergies: "Warning: This product produced in a factory where cilantro is used."
We'd also like to see progressive labeling, much like the current "gluten-free" boom: "Cilantro-free!" packages could ballyhoo. Or, better yet, "Certified cilantro-free." Maybe there could be a logo with a little cilantro sprig and a big "no" slash over it.
When cilantro is disclosed as an ingredient in a restaurant menu, we'd appreciate a minimum of sneers when we politely ask that it be omitted and instead, perhaps, used as an ingredient in chemical weapons. (This last is just a suggestion, mind you — no need to get huffy!) And we mean it when we ask for no cilantro. If the chef says, "What a yahoo! I'll just ignore his request — he'll never know the difference," trust me: We will know. I'm pretty sure that at concentrations of one part per billion, cilantro-haters could detect that distinctive soapy bitterness.
So, sure, you go on and enjoy your cilantro-laden (shudder!) salsa and your pad thai with extra cilantro. Just remember that if you had my aldehyde-compound sensitivity, you, too, would recoil in horror and run screaming to the restroom to wash your mouth out. (With soap — heck, it couldn't taste much worse.)
And blame my genes — and those of my poor, innocent daughter, who didn't ask to be brought into a world gone mad for cilantro. I wish I could enjoy that disgusting, soapy-tasting slop as much as you do, but I just can't. I can't help the revulsion I feel at the sight of those harmless-seeming herbs defiling your taco. Yes, my life would be easier if I could just down that devil-herb-laced concoction with the gluttonous ease you display. (Hey, at least use a napkin when you're done — wipe that green crap off your chin!)
The menu may say, "yes, yes," but my chromosomes say, "no, no." And, er, ugh.
There is hope, though. If you look closely at the graph from the Times tracing the rise of cilantro fever, you'll note a slight, zig-zaggy downward trend from the peak of insanity in 2004. Slowly, America may be turning its back on cilantro and moving on to some other culinary trend.
Might I suggest dried oregano, well aged?
David A. Fryxell blue-pencils even the word "cilantro"
when editing Desert Exposure.