Mixed feelings

Why is cilantro so polarizing?

By
April 2, 2007

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.

A cilantro garnish on chicken curry.

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.”

An ancient plant

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.”

Coriander seeds.

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.

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1. by Liz Crain on Apr 2, 2007 at 10:12 AM PDT

Have you been able to convert any of your cilantro-hating friends to the church of cilantro? I find it’s hard to introduce to those who have an aversion because I usu. prepare it raw and/or as a garnish and in that way its flavor is in full force. Any suggestions?

2. by hokan on Apr 2, 2007 at 1:13 PM PDT

As a child, teen and young adult I found cilantro quite unpleasant, but now in my 50s it has lost whatever made it taste bad. I’m not a lover yet, but use the stuff without hesitation or remorse.

3. by anonymous on Apr 3, 2007 at 12:09 PM PDT

I can’t say I’ve made any conversions yet. I do think it’s interesting that when I don’t mention that I’m using cilantro (which I also always use raw, right before serving, or in marinades) no one spits anything out or complains. Often, I’ll serve the cilantro on the side, and the haters are usually grateful. I’ve heard many people say that their taste for the herb has changed with age -- from hater to lover and vice versa.

4. by Craig Leontos on Apr 3, 2007 at 1:28 PM PDT

I like cilantro because I think it has a fresh taste. It makes everything taste fresh. It has a very distinctive smell as well, and I like it. Sometimes I rub it on my neck and behind my ears if I don’t have any cologne handy because I always have cilantro handy.

I like Sona Pai too. Her writing is fresh. She has a very distinctive smell as well, and I like it. Kudos to Sona! Love you Sweetheart!

5. by Brian Boultinghouse on Apr 5, 2007 at 1:38 PM PDT

If at first u dont like cilantro, try try again. Cindy(my wife) hated Cilantro when we 1st met, but a decade of mexican/thai/vietnamese food i made her join in every chance i got has turned her into an addict. She likes it mor than me now, if that’s possible :P

6. by ximena on Apr 6, 2007 at 3:23 AM PDT

I have tried. I promise, I really have. It´s just that it does taste like soap. I expect little bubbles to come out of my mouth when I eat it. Too bad.

7. by rtysons on Feb 20, 2008 at 2:24 PM PST

I love it; my husband hates it. I grew up eating lots of Thai food; he grew up on the edges of PA Dutch country in Pennsylvania (salt, pepper, and ketchup are basically the only spices there).

I didn’t even realize he was a cilantro hater till he couldn’t stand a Thai squid dish when we were out with family a few years ago. He spit it out and said it tasted horrible. It took us a bit to dig through the dish and discover that it was the cilatro that was setting him off. It tastes soapy to him, and the fact that he has such an aversion to it is interesting, because he doesn’t have much of a sense of smell or, therefore, much of a sense of taste, so it’s obviously something very strong to him. He can’t even stand to be around me when I’ve been eating raw cilantro; the smell of it on my breath gets him. I highly doubt I’ll ever be able to convert him, but like Sona, I have discovered that he does not have the same aversion to coriander.

8. by dgreyson on Feb 20, 2008 at 9:53 PM PST

About two years ago, my mom mysteriously mostly lost her sense of smell, and along with it, her sense of taste. Interestingly, the few things she still can taste: mint, citrus in nearly all forms, and cilantro. Fortunately, she likes cilantro (maybe part of my genetic predisposition towards it!). Thank you for an interesting article.

9. by alicat on Feb 26, 2008 at 7:03 AM PST

I’ve slowly grown to find it OK in the context of Thai or Indian foods, though I’d never chew on a sprig by itself. I did find it soapy when I was younger, but I guess my palate has changed over the years. Everything in context, I say.

My younger sister still has a violent aversion to it.

10. by anonymous on May 22, 2008 at 12:11 AM PDT

Im on the hardcore hate side of the cilantro debate.. even though i consider myself a bit of a foodie...and will eat an enjoy the most bizarre of food, cilantro turns my stomach.. the smell, the flavor, everything about it... i wanted to like it..i try it again from time to time to see if my pallet has ‘evolved’ but that particular herb just disgusts me.. moreso every time im exposed to it.. at least im quite an accomplished cook and quite capable of cooking most anything much better then the local restaurants... unfortunately we have a huge illegal population locally whose wonderful cooking skills im unable to enjoy due to their liberal use of this horrible substance..

11. by anonymous on Jun 10, 2008 at 6:20 PM PDT

I don’t like cilantro. It tastes like soap to me. Everyone has their own tastes.

12. by anonymous on Jul 14, 2008 at 9:46 PM PDT

Your discussion of the etymology is a bit narrow: in much of the English speaking world (eg, UK, Australia, NZ), the leaves are called “Coriander” and the seeds “Coriander seeds”. The term “Cilantro” is totally unfamiliar.

13. by anonymous on Jul 15, 2008 at 12:50 AM PDT

In the US it is called Cilantro.

14. by anonymous on Aug 15, 2008 at 2:08 PM PDT

Its funny cos I have an yeeaaghh reaction to parsely. As a grnish or hidden somewhere in a dip is okay.

15. by Mark on Sep 5, 2008 at 5:19 PM PDT

You are wrong that “Even people who hate cilantro don’t seem to have a problem with coriander.” I find them equally vile and disgusting.

16. by Nycteris on Oct 13, 2008 at 8:41 AM PDT

I would LIKE to like cilantro. I also consider myself kind of a foodie. I’ve eaten natto, and durian... but I really cannot get over cilantro. I find it sticks out among other flavors like a disgusting sore thumb. I don’t always pick it out, but I don’t ever enjoy it.

17. by anonymous on Dec 26, 2008 at 2:42 PM PST

As a kid i didn’t like eating some food, they were mostly bitter vegatables, and I didn’t know why people ate them. But as an adult I can eat every type of vegatable now. Except cilantro. It is not a choice. It tastes so bad, I am immediately repelled off. My appetite goes off. I am still not sure whether its the taste or smell. I cant explain it any other way, but CANT STAND IT. I prefer not to eat mexican food only because of cilantro, unless I know which sides they put cilantro in. If they are putting it into lots of stuff that I basically come down to eating rice and meat, then I am never going there again.

18. by anonymous on Jan 23, 2009 at 9:27 AM PST

I hate HATE cilantro. It’s so bad that just looking at the stuff makes my stomach flip. I avoid eating Mexican food because the restaurants seem to put it in everything. I’m glad that I’m not alone, it seemed like everybody I met thought I was from Mars with my reaction to the vile ditch weed.

19. by Hilary Cable on Feb 18, 2009 at 4:49 PM PST

That’s easy! Cilantro tastes like turpentine. And I love it. The first time I ate it, I spit it out - it was such a shocking flavor when I expected something more lettuce-like. I guess I acquired the taste, though, because I put it on everything now.

20. by Hilary Cable on Feb 18, 2009 at 4:56 PM PST

“vile ditch weed” - - hilarious! :)

21. by anonymous on Feb 21, 2009 at 4:53 PM PST

The problem is that it’s not a strong enough statement merely to say that cilantro tastes like soap.

Imagine what it would be like if dishwashing detergent were not only used to wash dishes, but was also used to flavor food.

Imagine that many people around you and on the internet love the taste of dishwashing detergent, and can’t possibly understand that it isn’t the most delicious condiment on the planet, and that they are confused (or even upset) that you don’t want to put it in your mouth.

Imagine that there are entire cuisines that revolve around putting dishwashing detergent in food.

Then, perhaps you might just barely begin to understand how some of feel.

22. by llondon on Feb 24, 2009 at 2:38 PM PST

my understanding is that it’s not just a dislike or any aversion. it’s a genetic thing that causes some of us to feel that it tastes like dishwashing detergent. none of us say “we just don’t like it”. it tastes the same to all of us who can’t eat it. i wish it was simpler and i wish i liked it, but i just don’t. if you give me a spoonful of salsa w/one bit of stem in it, all i can taste is cilantro...and it’s very unpleasant.

23. by Hella Delicious on Mar 7, 2009 at 10:26 AM PST

Here’s a wild theory: maybe there is something missing or something extra in the saliva of people who dislike it, maybe it is just a chemical reaction, which maybe changes with whatever is in the saliva-it could even be a bacteria, perhaps, but the memory of that terrible taste stays with a person so they don’t want to try it again. Maybe it is even certain body types that react this way?

24. by anonymous on Apr 5, 2009 at 11:50 AM PDT

I am a hater. To me it so dominates the dish, it is the only thing I taste. It took me a while to actually identify what that truly terrible (to me) taste was. I really have no other food aversions except for fat or gristle in meats and I cannot wash a skillet that was used to fry hamburger, the smell nauseates me. I love basil!

25. by anonymous on Oct 22, 2009 at 3:03 PM PDT

I realized I didn’t like cilantro about a year ago, while eating a fish taco. I bit into it and thought there was something wrong with the food like maybe some soap had gotten on the lettuce. It was so bitter! It was the worst taste I ever tasted in life! I found out it was cilantro, and have had the displeasure of accidentally biting into it in other dishes since that day.

26. by Jeremy on Jan 3, 2010 at 11:31 AM PST

An interesting article that I enjoyed reading, however from it I sense the same familiar, snarky undertone that radiates from the typical cilantro lover. The fact that one finds enjoyment from slipping cilantro into foods unannounced (and presumably to friends that you know do not like it?) is all too familiar of the “followers.” This is where the anger comes in from folks who despise the weed. It’s not the weed that is vile (inedible to many, but not vile), but the folks who force it on others.

Would you slip milk, cheese or any other food into a meal that you’re preparing for a loved one that you knew hated those ingredients? I’m confused by the arrogant compulsion to force it on others.

27. by Sona Pai on Jan 3, 2010 at 4:03 PM PST

Jeremy: I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was forcing anything on anyone, but just to set the record straight, I would never do that! In fact, since researching and writing this article, I’ve been known to set a bowl of chopped cilantro on the side of dishes I’d normally use it in, so the lovers can take as much as they want and the haters can rest assured that it’s not lurking in anything.

28. by anonymous on Apr 14, 2010 at 10:55 AM PDT

Both cilantro lovers and haters have a lot of company. I can’t stand it, but, to me, it doesn’t taste like soap; instead, it tastes like bitter medicine and spoils the taste of anything it is used in. That, too, goes with coriander. It seems that, at restaurants, whenever I try an appetizer or unknown dish which has a very peculiar, unpleasant taste and I look at the list of ingredients(if listed)in very small print, I notice coriander is listed and regret my choice. I cannot imagine how positively dreadful and unpalatable food whose preparation would require 1/2 CUP(or more!) of cilantro would taste! It’s dreadful, period.

29. by flowerlover on May 5, 2010 at 6:01 PM PDT

This discussion is so interesting! Someone needs to research this, because I’d bet anything that it has to do with the taster’s chemistry and/or taste buds. I not only love cilantro, but it makes me happy. It tastes like spring.

30. by Kim on May 5, 2010 at 9:04 PM PDT

flowerlover: Just recently in the New York Times, Harold McGee came up with an explanation that may interest you.

31. by anonymous on May 24, 2010 at 12:58 PM PDT

It is incorrect to state that there is no research showing a genetic link to dislike of cilantro. Several years ago, I attended a medical talk regarding the conversion of vicodin into morphine. Commonly known in the medicine, some people just do not metabolize vicodin into morphine, and therefore, experience no pain-relieving benefit.

What does this have to do with cilantro? Well, it turns out the researcher stumbled onto an interesting pattern. People who do not metabolize vicodin into morphine also were found to dislike both cilantro and licorice. After some additional research, it was found that these three traits are encoded on the same gene. People who do not like the taste of cilantro have an extra receptor on their taste buds that can sense the underlying bitterness (sometimes quite intensely) in both cilantro and licorice. Those who like cilantro and licorice are unable to taste the bitterness in the plants.

I found it a fascinating talk, as I do not metabolize vicodin into morphine (found that out after I had my wisdom teeth out -- since I ended up with dry socket, this was not a pleasant time to find that out). And I had for years had a horrible aversion to both cilantro and licorice. I was so grateful to find out why! The first time I had cilantro or ever heard of it, it was accidentally added to a pizza (who knew people would put it in pizza?). I was immediately revolted by the pizza but had no idea why. My friends loved it. I asked for something new when the mistake was realized. To me, both cilantro and licorice taste bitterly metallic. I can sometimes eat a little bit of cilantro in foods where bitterness can enhance the flavor (sometimes bitter is an appropriate taste), but otherwise, even when I don’t expect it, I notice it and end up picking it out. It has ruined Chipotle, some Thai food, and lots of Mexican and Indian foods for me (which is unfortunate, because I love all these cuisines...when there is no cilantro added).

For those of you who don’t like cilantro, if you also dislike licorice, you probably won’t want to take vicodin when you need painkillers! :)

32. by kmcc on Jun 7, 2011 at 9:38 PM PDT

I love licorice, hate cilantro -- it taste like an armpit to me, and get knocked out on only one vicodin. Go figure.

33. by anonymous on Oct 7, 2011 at 12:31 PM PDT

Cilantro rules my world - I grow it and put in on almost every dish I can think of. I now make pesto from cilantro rather than basil, and will never go back. I also love coriander, especially in my Belgian White style beers. Without this plant life would be dull, dark and uninspiring...

34. by anonymous on Dec 15, 2011 at 11:10 AM PST

I am fine with cilantro--it doesn’t have much flavor to me, but if I hate to describe it, I’d say “fresh” or like peppery citrus.

However, I HATE licorice! So I don’t go along with the research relating cilantro and licorice.

I do wonder if it has to do with me growing up eating lots of Mexican food. Is it possible I got used to the flavor, whereas I’ve never given licorice a chance?

35. by anonymous on Jul 3, 2012 at 1:22 PM PDT

I want to like cilantro so badly but the taste of it pisses me off. I’m literally offended every time it gets in my mouth.

36. by anonymous on Sep 14, 2012 at 2:38 PM PDT

Was recently in the grocery store and the entire produce section reeked of cilantro. It was like an entire field of the stuff had been run through a wood chipper! I got out of there asap and headed back to the meat department that smelled of freshly cooked bacon. Heaven and Hell under the same roof.

37. by Goran on Nov 11, 2012 at 3:44 PM PST

Well, I’ve lived in the country since ever I was a little boy and I can tell you that the smell of cilantro, which I came to know only a couple of years ago (having planted the herb in my garden), is really the same as of those foul little drops that stink bugs (Pentatomidae, more common in Europe than the US) emit when you try to catch them or hold them. Those bugs also feed on raspberries and make them stinky. Absolutely NO ONE I know can bear the smell of cilantro, but most, including me, like the smell and aroma of the seeds (coriander) which is quite different. So yes, the Greeks were right to call the herb after bed bugs, because bed bugs are related to and kinda look like those stink bugs I described.

38. by anonymous on Dec 24, 2012 at 7:20 PM PST

Cilantro is probably the worst thing I have ever tasted other than an incindental mishap with battery acid that we shant speak of... It overpowers and ruins every dish with its bitter flavor. It must be a genetic difference among people, because if they tasted what I tasted, no one would ever go near it.

39. by Mercedes on Feb 13, 2013 at 5:24 PM PST

I love trying new foods, and I enjoy exotic tastes, so I was excited to try cilantro for the first time in a new recipe of spaghetti that my mother cooked. I took the first bite and was overwhelmed with a bitter soapy taste. At first I thought maybe there had been some soap left on my plate from where it was washed, so I tried a different plate but still the horribly bitter taste was still there. When I found my mom had put cilantro on the spaghetti, I was disappointed because my mother claimed it had a really good taste and I couldn’t perceive it. So after a couple a months, I tried to eat cilantro again, thinking that maybe my tastes could’ve changed. I really honestly tried to like it, but it just tasted like pouring dawn hand soap into my mouth and I lost my appetite. I’m sure it’s really good to others but I hate that my tongue just doesn’t like it. My only problem is unknowingly getting cilantro in Latino dishes :(

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