Describing the way something tastes often means comparing it to something else. Fennel tastes like licorice. Parmesan has a nutty flavor. Frog legs, alligator, and rattlesnake taste like chicken. But when we come across a food with a flavor we find unique, our best attempts at descriptive precision require some creative imprecision.
Take cilantro, an herb that people seem to either love, hate, or love to hate.
Personally, I love it. Growing up in an Indian household, I ate cilantro just about every day: sprinkled on my mother’s turmeric-yellow cauliflower, mixed in with my dad’s chicken curry, and puréed with mint in the spicy green chutney we ate with samosas or spread on a slice of bread.
I don’t remember ever thinking much about cilantro, just that it was always there and that it made everything taste sort of brisk and bright and green. I know that, technically, none of those words refers to a taste, but they are the best I can do.
When I began cooking on my own, I was surprised to find that some of my friends didn’t like cilantro. More accurately, they were revolted by it. Just saying the word “cilantro” made their faces contort in ways that actually looked painful. They said they couldn’t stand it, not even a little whiff of it. They said it tasted like fertilizer or cat litter or old pennies. The most common complaint was that it tasted like soap.
I assumed these people were just picky eaters and bad sports. They just weren’t used to cilantro, and so they assumed they didn’t like it without really giving it a fair shot. But the bizarre descriptions kept coming. I’ve heard people say it tastes like aluminum foil and like air freshener and like a migraine.
Jed Sundwall, who works at an Internet startup in San Diego, has been filming a documentary about cilantro as a side project. So far, he’s filmed people in Mexico, Brazil, Malta, San Diego, New York City, and Washington, D.C., talking about how they feel about cilantro, and he’s heard plenty of badmouthing.
One woman who had moved to northern Brazil from the south told him she lost 17 pounds because she couldn’t eat the north’s cilantro-laden food. “I’ve also heard someone say it tastes like hitting yourself in the head,” Sundwall says.
Sundwall says two of the most interesting things he’s learned about cilantro to date are:
1. It’s thought to be the most widely used herb in the world.
2. Julia Child hated it.
In a 2002 interview, Child told Larry King that the two foods she didn’t like at all were cilantro and arugula. She said if she saw one of them on her plate, she’d pick it out and throw it on the floor. To her, they had a “dead taste.”
For just about anyone who grew up in the diverse culinary traditions of Latin America, the Caribbean, Portugal, northern Africa, the Middle East, the South Asian subcontinent, and most of Asia, cilantro tastes like home.
The plant, Coriandrum sativum, is rich in vitamins A and C and belongs to the same family as carrots, cumin, anise, parsley, caraway, dill, and less common herbs with cool names like centella, sweet cicely and rock samphire. Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicate that the plant, likely a Mediterranean native, was widely cultivated throughout that region, the Middle East, and South Asia by the second millennium B.C. and possibly even earlier.
Today, the term “cilantro” refers to the plant’s delicate green leaves, while the seeds, which are technically fruits, are known as coriander. A beloved spice in the cilantro-loving world, coriander was also common in medieval Europe, and it’s still used throughout Europe as a flavoring for baked goods, sweets, beer, gin, and pickles.
Coriander has a strong, floral flavor, but it doesn’t share cilantro’s bad reputation. Even people who hate cilantro don’t seem to have a problem with coriander. When I gave my cilantro-hating friend Jason a coriander seed to chew on, he was fine with it, but he had to spit out a cilantro leaf immediately. My friend Yasmin says coriander is one of her favorite spices, but she says cilantro tastes like “pungent grass that may have been urinated upon.”
Food writers and cilantro haters often repeat the assertion that the original Greek name of the plant, koriannon, is derived from the Greek word for bug, koris. More specifically, they say it’s a reference to the bedbug, which emits a musty, unpleasantly sweet odor when crushed.
In the spring 2001 issue of Gastronomica magazine, Helen Leach argues that there is no direct evidence to suggest a linguistic connection. She found ancient Greeks and Romans who wrote about coriander and about bedbugs, but she didn’t find anyone comparing the two or the way they smelled.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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