On calling a truce with cilantro

Troops, this is the enemy. See how it disguises itself to look a lot like parsley? It's wiley so beware.

I don’t like cilantro.

I think I’ve made serious progress in not saying I loathe cilantro or I find cilantro disgusting. I’d prefer not to eat it but I’ve learned to tolerate it since it appears in so many dishes I like.

So I found a recent New York Times article headlined “Cilantro haters, it’s not your fault” interesting for two reasons:

First, who doesn’t like having their opinion affirmed? Reading that:

“The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food notes that the word “coriander” is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug, that cilantro aroma “has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes” and that “Europeans often have difficulty in overcoming their initial aversion to this smell.”

means I might be in the minority here but I’m not alone.

Second, the article explains why some people might dislike cilantro, and specifically think it doesn’t taste like food.

When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.

If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.

Many people, even those who like it, describe cilantro as having a soapy taste.  Understandably this would be offputting for some, but in others, they recognize that taste and still enjoy cilantro. That’s not unlike people who enjoy a wine they’d describe with terms like medicinal, old saddle or wet dog.

Here’s the fit for a blog about evolution: a neuroscientist quoted in the story says we can retrain our brains to have different associations with a flavor.

The first time I encountered cilantro, I thought the Indian food I was eating had picked up the taste of the tin packaging it was in. I tried to eat away from the edges, thinking that’s where the problem started, but couldn’t escape it.

I’ve since tolerated cilantro in guacamole and in Thai soups and though it’s not my favorite, I like those dishes enough to cope. As a result, I think I’m teaching my brain that it’s not tin but instead it’s associated with yummy things.

I blogged a while back about retasting foods I thought I didn’t like. The point of that piece was that tastes can change as we age.

This recent Times article was intriguing to me because it suggests it’s not just trial and error but that we can teach our mouths to like something.

Does that mean I need to mount a reprogramming campaign to develop a taste for oranges, too?

Have you ever learned to like something? Did you do it intentionally?

More on cilantro: Cilantro-phobes (via Indian Culinary Center)

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13 replies

  1. Excellent post! I was just commenting to friends that I discovered cilantro only recently … and detest it, intensely! the metallic taste is so vile that I honestly wonder why anyone would subject their tongues to anything so horrible. Why not eat grass, or radish tops, or oak leaves? ugh.
    (Incidentally, I’m not a finicky eater … I like foods like parsely, Stilton cheese, caviar, black olives and blutwurst).
    Thank you for the explanation about taste – it’s very helpful in reasoning out why I react to cilantro the way I do.

  2. Mary Jean, I love your observation that learning to cook changed your perception.

    Not only did you come to appreciate what onions contributed to the dish, you were also in control of the way you consumed them. So if liquefying your onions let you enjoy the taste without the texture issue, you could begin to develop that new association with onion taste.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Onions!

    Especially cooked onions. Their slimy mushiness put me right off my feed — and were, naturally, the basis for about 80 percent of everything my mom cooked for dinner.
    I always thought it was so unfair. Why couldn’t I detest an easily avoidable food, like jicama or kippers?

    I was so fastidious that I would surgically pick out the diced, sauteed onions in, say, spaghetti sauce or chili, and pile them safely off on the side of my plate. Once I was sure that I had thoroughly cleared the premises — and I was eagle-eyed; if a shred of onion was lurking under a hunk of tomato, it was a goner — then I could eat. It was really only one step removed from, say, picking out the eggs before eating a piece of cake. Crazy.

    Learning to cook changed my relationship with onions. I learned how essential they are to so many dishes, the loveliness they lend to foods, how much blander eating would be without them. And every damn recipe I read started with “chop up one medium onion.” There was no way around it: I would have to learn to live with them.

    At first I started by pulverizing the called-for amount of onions in a mini-processor, blasting them almost into a soup so I could get the flavor but still render them invisible. That sufficed for a while. As my knife skills got better, though, I was able to dice them nice and neat and have one fewer implement in the kitchen.

    I’m no longer freaked out by the mere sight of a sliver of translucent onion hanging out on my plate. I’ve even grown amenable to raw onions, especially raw red onions, in certain applications, such as alongside tandoori chicken or in Alice Waters’ fabled coleslaw.

    I’m still never going to eat a bowl of French onion soup, and a few years ago I simply could not eat an onion tart that a friend brought over for dinner, lovely and crusty and caramelized as it was. Onion rings are fifty/fifty. But I’m glad I got over it, because I love to cook, and fearing onions would be a serious detriment in the kitchen.

    And besides, who doesn’t love a good cry?

  4. I love cilantro soooooo much. Any food that tastes good without cilantro tastes better with cilantro.

    But I totally understand your aversion. I try really, really hard not to pressure other people (even those to whom I gave birth) to eat things they’d rather not eat.

    We live in a world of abundant food choices. You don’t *have* to eat anything you don’t want to.

  5. Butter. Cheese. Lactose intolerance discourages you from liking these things but after a while, they can be wonderful!


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