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Just What Is It About Cilantro Anyway?

(This is a repeat post from 2012. It seems pertinent with the holidays coming up. If you don’t feel like talking politics around the Thanksgiving table, just bring up cilantro! ~ Launie)

 

Politics, religion, same-sex marriage, breast feeding, health care, sometimes it seems that there’s nothing that American’s don’t vehemently fight about. But, just like you shouldn’t bring up your hatred of Chuck Norris around your NRA-loving uncle at Thanksgiving – it’s also not a great idea to walk into a party and loudly exclaim your love of cilantro.

For such a small herb, it’s a hugely contentious food. There’s even a blog named “I Hate Cilantro” and a Facebook page, as well. So, a couple of weeks ago I started a little research project about why people don’t like it, what makes it such a divisive issue and which celebrities have chimed in with their preferences (and I tried to track down a few to ask the question).

However, just because it’s a hot button herb, doesn’t mean that the subject can’t be funny. In fact I laughed out loud at Julia Child’s pithy, cilantro-loathing comments in 2002 when she had this exchange with CNN’s Larry King:

CHILD: I don’t like cilantro.

KING: What is that?

CHILD: It’s an herb that has a kind of a taste that I don’t like.

But, what is it about cilantro that bothers people so much? Let’s start with the science. Chemists discovered that the aroma of cilantro is made up of 6 or more substances and that most of them are modified fragments of molecules called aldehydes. Those same aldehydes are found in soap, hand lotions and some insects. So, when people complain that cilantro smells like soap, they have a point. As a cilantro lover myself, it pains me to write that sentence. (In fact, before humans had citrusy smelling cleaners, people who loathed cilantro thought it smelled like bed bugs. The Greeks even named coriander after the word “Koris” which means bed bug.) It pains me even more to write that sentence.

Which begs the question: “If cilantro smells like soap, then why do people like it?” And that’s when it gets a little complicated with genetics and family history. If a person is exposed to cilantro at a young age they have a better chance of smelling its light citrusy qualities. However, because humans associate food with smell, if they don’t have a food experience to relate to – then their brain will make a link between cilantro and soap. Which in turn makes the brain think that the body is about to be poisoned, or at the very least is in danger. And that makes people highly agitated at the thought of the cilantro – hence the cilantrophobe is born.

Also, in May a new study was released which shows that genetics plays a different part in cilantro appreciation than previously thought. The study was conducted by two nutrition experts at the University of Toronto. They published their findings in Flavour, and the results found that there is a great deal of difference between ethnic groups, at least where cilantro appreciation is concerned. They studied 1,400 people from the ages of 20-29 in Canada and the volunteers were asked to fill out a 63-item checklist where whey rated food on a scale from 1 (dislike extremely) to 9 (like extremely). Also, the volunteers could select “never tried” or “would not try.”

The researchers found that cilantro-aversion ranged from 3% to 21% among the six different groups. Volunteers with East Asian roots (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese) had the highest rate of dislike, while Caucasians came in second at 17% and volunteers of African descent came in at 14%. However, of people from Middle Eastern backgrounds, only 3% voiced a dislike for cilantro, followed by those of Hispanic heritage at 4% and South Asian ancestry at 7%.

The study’s findings seem a little strange to me, because cilantro plays a decent role in some Chinese, Vietnamese and African food. But, hey. It’s science.

Speaking of science, for cilantro lovers though, there is good health news about our beloved herb.

  • Cilantro may ease menstrual symptoms
  • It contains immune boosting properties
  • Like many green vegetables cilantro is a good source of iron and magnesium

Cilantro in Pop Culture:

For fun, I decided to do a Google search for “celebrities who like cilantro” and here’s what I found.

Celebrities who are pro-cilantro: Busy Philipps, Bette Midler, Clifton Collins Jr.,

Bethenny Frankel, Chase Daniel, Kevin Bacon

And then I searched for “celebrities who hate cilantro.”

Celebrities who dislike cilantro: Jerry Springer and Kim Kardashian

Then I searched out celebrity chefs who had 3 or more recipes pop up when I googled their name “plus cilantro.”

Celebrity chefs who like/use cilantro: Jacques Pepin, Jamie Oliver, Carla Hall, Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, Giada de Laurentiis, Mario Batali

Finally, I found articles with chefs talking about their cilantro-aversion.

Celebrity chefs who loathe cilantro: Ina Garten, Lidia Bastianich, Fabio Viviani

And then I decided to take my question “to the street” as it were, to Twitter. Out of the 30 singers, actors, actresses, comedians and chefs I posed this query to: “I’m doing an informal survey for a blog post. When it comes to cilantro are you yay, nay, or ‘meh?’”

I heard back from 6, which I thought was pretty decent. (And I picked up Yoko Ono as a follower, though she didn’t answer the question. But I still think that’s pretty cool.)

(Spunky skirt-wearin’ Food Network chef Anne Burrell couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.)

Anne Burrell

(Neko Case solo artist and former member of The New Pornographers not only answered the

question – she could have started a Twitter war with her comment about fennel.)

Neko Case

(The awesome Vickie Eng – “W” on the show Good Eats and Judge Rita Mayson on the show Drop Dead Diva – was pretty enthusiastic too.)

Vickie Eng

(American film, stage and television actress S. Epatha Merkerson well known for her portrayal of Lt. Van Buren on Law and Order made me laugh with her response.)

S. Epatha Merkerson

(Candace Karu Lifestyle Commentator & Favorite Foodie for Cabot Creamery Cooperative is a wise lady. She pointed me to my favorite NYT cilantro article referenced here and above.)

(The hilarious, awesome and well coiffed Michael Urie of Ugly Betty and who appears on The Good Wife, made my heart go all a-flutter when he responded.)

Michael Urie

So, here’s what I learned over my week-and-a-half research project. People who dislike cilantro really dislike it – with good reason. They literally think that it’s trying harm them. And people who really love the taste are pretty exuberant about it. And there’s a small group of people in the middle who tolerate it in small doses. And in a country that’s become so divided about so many things, maybe we should look to them to broker the peace.

cilantro-l

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