Ode to My Pantry: Cilantro

Learning to feed yourself can be one of the most terrifying things. Am I about to give myself food poisoning? If I eat this too often will I end up with scurvy? How can I get the most nutritional bang for my buck? Why does this still taste like ass?

With Ode to My Pantry, learn to navigate a grocery store without having a meltdown in aisle three. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a queer to cook and stave off malnutrition for another semester.

Salt

Cilantro is one of those polarizing foods that other people can’t seem to understand. Given enough time, vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, carnivores and omnivores learn to appreciate one another, but all that built up respect flies out the window once you invite that little green thing to the party. Friendships dissolve, relationships fall on the rocks, family dinners become tense and suddenly you’re wondering if you even understand the person you’re breaking bread with.

My hatred was learned through a highly traumatic summer. I think I was five when my mom’s green thumb was exceedingly prolific and my visiting grandmother decided to put it to good use. Shu mai? Let’s put cilantro in that. Fried rice? I’ll add some there. Eggs? Yes, cilantro worthy. And hey, let’s make it into a salad too. Then, let’s spend the rest of summer dehydrating the herb garden so the house reeks of cilantro for days on end. Then you and your sister can painstakingly remove each crispy leaf from the stems until you fingers are tainted with an odor that makes you want to hurl! 

There are enough feelings to inspire a community that expresses their disdain through verse!

Taste of Soap? I wish!
More like an aged skunk carcass
Soaked in gasoline.

oy! such a flavor
too bad it’s so repulsive
greatly overused

A certified chef,
even I cannot bear it;
the foulest of herbs.

Why ruin salsa?
Mexican food was once great.
Today, not so much.

This’ll show up on someone’s Christmas List.

I would have gladly displayed this mug and I wouldn’t be alone. It seems like every scientist that hates the green stuff wants to prove that there’s reason behind their fussiness. A survey of 50,000 people found that cilantro distaste is tied to a genetic polymorphism that’s situated near genes related to smell receptors. These smell receptors specifically bind aldehydes, a chemical structure that’s also responsible for soap. So while some people will happily munch away on their guacamole, a lot of people can’t stop thinking that someone washed their avocados with Palmolive.

If you have an aversion, you can just avoid it right? Sounds easy enough, but sometimes you end up in this situation.

I hate cilantro
but my girlfriend loves that shit
so unfortunate.

What could you do? Vow to eat separate meals for the rest of your lives? Sell off the cat and start moving out now? Both of you should put down your U-Haul rental forms and reassess the situation before you have to raise the white flag.

Harold McGee, one of my favourite writers, ‘fessed up to being a soap-taster. Instead of simply grimacing and writing the herb off, he spoke to Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist with a focus on scent.

I didn’t like cilantro to begin with. But I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day. So I began to like cilantro. It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there would’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.

DSC_0007

Cilantro: one of the odder bouquets you can get

When it comes to the hated greenery, try and try again.

Keep It Fresh

If you’re going to try to develop some positive cilantro memories, make sure you get the good stuff. Dried cilantro tastes funky, so either grow it yourself or grab it from your market. Look for bright green leaves without any yellowing or wilting. Stems should be turgid and roots unmatted.  Cilantro leaves don’t tolerate abuse or cold since they’re relatively thin and delicate. (I recently learned that cilantro can’t survive two minutes in -20°C! Weak!) If you’re out buying herbs this winter, make sure to insulate them for the trek home.

Once they’re in your kitchen, pop them into a make-shift vase, cover them with a bag and stick them in your fridge. Pluck off leaves as you need them and be sure to change the water if it gets murky. Keep your plants perky as there’s nothing grosser than slimy herbs. Wash your leaves right before use to prevent them from becoming sludge.

Try 

Now that you own a plant that you hate, how should you approach your adversary? Look to other cultures that use cilantro and just put in a little bit to build up a tolerance and/or appreciation. Guacamole? Pho? Lentil dal? Give it a go.

Try Again

One way to combat the soapy flavour is to allow the plant’s own enzymes to break down the aldehydes. Chop up your cilantro as fine as you can and walk away as it cannibalizes itself. Make use of your plant puree by pulverizing it into a pesto.

No Seriously, Try Again

If you can’t fathom eating a dish with cilantro as the star ingredient,  try a slow stew like ghormeh sabzi (green stew). Cilantro’s bite is counterbalanced by the other herbs and spices while the long cooking time drives off a lot of cilantro’s volatile oils.

Admit Defeat

Sometimes you just can’t overcome your nature with nurture. If cilantro still leaves a bad taste in your mouth, relegate the herb to garnish. Your cilantro-philic girlfriend shouldn’t be too disappointed, since cilantro tastes brightest when it’s finely chopped and added last minute. You can also use parsley, Vietnamese coriander, basil and celery leaves as mediocre substitutes. They won’t taste the same, but that’s kind of the point.

So what camp do you fall in? Cilantro-philic or cilantro-phobic? And have you ever ruined a relationship because of it?

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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 138 articles for us.

38 Comments

  1. Ew, cilantro. When I worked at Taco Bell during high school we had to make pico de gallo salsa every other day- which included chopping up pounds and pounds of the stinky stuff. It was my most hated task.

  2. Ugh ugh ugh ew ew ew ew it’s so evil. It taints everything it comes in contact with, too. I don’t know who I got the hate from, my mom fucking loves it.

    My girlfriend loves it too, but she just gets it for her and uses it as a garnish/when I’m not around/orders things in restaurants with it.

  3. Cilantro always reminds me of when I worked in a grocery store. I couldn’t tell a lot of the green herbs apart by sight (except for dill, of course) so I’d smell them – cilantro has a very distinct scent…

  4. I loooove cilantro; it’s such a must for me in Indian and Mexican food (though my mother and sisters hate it). And I loved this article– thank you!

    I’m very lucky that my girlfriend loves cilantro, too, and I would guess that we’ve had this same cilantro-related conversation maybe 5-10 times by now, about how very lucky we are that we both like the stuff. Otherwise… I don’t even want to think about it!

  5. I never had any feelings about cilantro but it’s in the homemade nacho bites recipe on Queer Fat Femme, which I love to make (just made yesterday!). I am a person who likes to follow recipes to the letter, and it makes me feel like I’m eating somewhat healthier to put a green leafy thing into it. The rest of my family had an “I HATE CILANTRO” reaction when I got it from the grocery store, but I am pretty neutral about it.

  6. I reaaaaaally want to like cilantro. All of my friends who love it describe it as fresh and bright and wonderful. I want to taste it like that, too! I keep trying (and giving myself headaches in the process) but so far no dice. It’s in all of my favourite foods, too.

    • Then i am going to hell. Maybe not, though, because I thank God every day the cilantro fad a few years back is done and I can go to a restaurant without having to ask them to take the f’g cilantro out of my soup, water, bacon, placemats, parking space, salt shaker, etc.

  7. For all the cilantro-phobes, there is hope! I used to absolutely hate cilantro, couldn’t eat anything with it which really put a damper on my love affair with Mexican/South Asian food.
    Then while studying abroad I was living alone in an apartment, and as I love to cook I decided I was finally going to overcome my aversion to the herb. It was long and painful but now I enjoy it and can appreciate the complexity it adds to my favorite foods. I no longer have to waste perfectly good pad thai or pho or tacos al pastor just because I can’t stomach the cilantro. So I recommend making an effort to eat it regularly and the taste really does eventually lose its intensity.

    • The first few time I had fresh coriander my mum was adding it to salads, and I HATED it. I tried to pick it out, spat it out and it tainted the whole thing. Then my laziness overcame so i ate it gradually more and more (too lazy to pick it out) and now i ADORE it.

      My girlfriend reckons I add it to everything. I cannot get enough.

      My favourite at the moment is hot sweet potato and white potato chopped up with chili, fresh coriander, lime juice and olive oil and a good crumbling of fetta cheese. all mixed together. wonderful!

  8. I think I was neutral against cilantro until I got food poisoning after eating something super cilantro-fied. Now the only time I can even LOOK at the stuff is in pho. Zeller is a huge cilantro fiend though, so I try to suck it up and let her keep it in the fridge. I think we have a wilted bunch in one of our veggie drawers. We’ll have to try out this vase/bag method.

  9. I always thought it was just me who hated cilantro. I assumed the soapy way it tasted was just me associating it with my time working at Moe’s and washing lots of cilantro scented dishes. Who knew it was actually a thing? Everyone else I know seems to love it though.

  10. Seriously? I have never encountered this intense coriander-hate. Does it extend to coriander seeds too? Those are my absolute favourite spices, the best things in nachoes or Indian curries…

  11. I heard about cilantro hate before I really knew what cilantro was and what foods/cuisines use it. I wasn’t sure whether I had the polymorphism or not until I realized that I was eating stuff like pico de gallo and pho without having a strong reaction, which must mean that I don’t.

  12. Interesting that it is a genetic thing. I have never had any problem with cilantro. I just feel sad buying it because it always ends up going bad in my fridge before I can use it all (although I may try your vase!).

    I also have a bad sense of smell so this might be why I don’t understand the problem with it.

  13. Just reading about cilantro makes my tongue itch. I have friends who love the stuff, but it almost feels like it’s burning my tongue. It sucks because I know a guy who makes really great salsa, except for the cilantro in it. Also when Taco Bell hired Lorena Garcia to revamp their menu, some of my favorite items became cilantro-y (it’s in the guacamole and the diced tomatoes here now, which really puts a damper on the menu).

  14. i am a former cilantro-phobe now turned phile: hated the stuff as a kid, but now i can’t get enough (possibly changed because of an unfortunate incident involving eating something straight from the freezer and burning all my taste buds off. not pretty).

    my side switch on this issue is so thorough that now i can’t even fathom how anyone could hate it, or how mexican/indian food could taste good without it!

    definitely trying the bag/vase trick so i can ALWAYS have cilantro to put in even MORE dishes.

  15. i am so in love with the fact that you guys translated “ghormeh sabzi” to “green stew”. which is exactly what it is, of course! it was just qt.

    (btw, it is the most rich, delicious, comfort food on the face of this earth, and also not too strongly flavored of cilantro at all, so definitely a good place to start for someone looking to try cilantro again.)

  16. I pretty much never had cilantro until I started dating my girlfriend and she puts it in EVERYTHING and I eat EVERYTHING she makes because I hate making food. I never knew cilantro was gross to people. I literally can taste it without tasting it. I love the taste and smell and errythang cilantro-y

  17. I have had meany a well-meaning friend advise me that I will get over my aversion to cilantro if I try hard enough, but alas when I eat it I either vomit or get stomach pain and diarrhea, which kills the prospect of trying to condition myself to like it.
    While it’s great that some people are able to train themselves to tolerate it, some of us will simply never be able to handle cilantro and that’s okay too, it’s not a sign that we’re somehow less evolved.

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