Noxious leaf, or delectable herb? Your taste for cilantro may depend upon what you ate as a child, and, though the science isn't clear, on genetic predisposition.
Here's the question: Do you love cilantro, or do you hate it?.
In our house, there isn't a day that goes by when cilantro isn’t calling plaintively from the refrigerator. “That tabbouleh would be so much better with me instead of that boring parsley,” it whines. “And what about that chipotle chicken soup you’re making, or the pot of black beans simmering on the back burner? You know you want me!”
Yes, actually I do. There’s nothing like cilantro to lift the flavor of other ingredients. And besides, I love the taste and fragrance of its floppy foliage.
Right now the soft, fresh aroma of the leaf is conjuring up a big bowl of summertime pico de gallo. The tomatoes are bursting with ripe, fruity flavor, and the just-picked serrano chiles taste like sweet green peppers riddled with pockets of fiery heat. Add a handful or two of fresh cilantro—plus lime juice and chopped onion—and suddenly you have a succulent salsa that is the essence of deliciousness.
But maybe you’re not a cilantro lover. Julia Child despised it.
On her 90th birthday she confessed to Larry King that the only two foods she didn’t like at all were cilantro and arugula. “They’re both green herbs, they have a kind of dead taste to me,” she said. “So you would never order [cilantro]?” asked King. “Never, I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor,” she replied.
Poor Julia! It’s possible that, like many others, she found that cilantro tasted just like soap. She may even have caught a whiff of “crushed bed bugs” in passing. The stinky olfactory association is so powerful that that some etymologists believe the word “coriander” derives from koris, the ancient Greek term for “bug.”
In “Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault" (The New York Times, April 14, 2010), food scientist Harold McGee explains why some people are repelled by the smell and taste of cilantro: The same sort of chemical compounds known as aldehydes—“modified fragments of fat molecules”—that give cilantro its characteristic aroma are also found in “soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects.” "Many bugs make strong smelling, aldehyde-rich body fluids to attract or repel other creatures,” he adds.
But if you're a cilantrophobe, is it nature or nurture? Magee says it may have a lot to do with how much cilantro you ate growing up. “If a 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,” he writes.
Floating around is an intriguing theory that some of us are genetically predisposed to love it (or not). In a 2009 study, researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia asked pairs of twins to sniff chopped cilantro that had been placed in a plastic squeeze bottle. Identical twins, who share identical genes, “almost always had the same degree of pleasant/unpleasant perception of cilantro,” versus fraternal twins, who share only 50 percent of the same genes and couldn’t agree on their response.
Even more fascinating is the idea that there might be whole societies of cilantro lovers. Recently David Leite of Leite’s Culinaria wrote in to comment on the Portuguese passion for the herb. The Portuguese are about the only Europeans who use cilantro in their cooking—and lots of it. He wonders if cilantro-love could have anything to do “with the genetics of an entire country specifically.” He adds: “You know how some people find cilantro soapy tasting? I don’t, and I’m 100 percent Portuguese.”
We’ll have to wait for serious research, but in the meantime let’s take a closer look at this contentious herb.
Plant family: Apiciae or Umbelliferae, a vast family which includes carrots and celery as well as aromatic herbs and spices such as anise, caraway, chervil, cumin, dill, parsley and fennel.
Botantical name: Coriandrum sativum
Aliases: Chinese parsley, fragrant green, fresh coriander.
Derivation: Gernot Katzer suggests that the word "cilantro" may come from “the Medieval Latin celiandrum,” a variant of coriandrum. Others opine that the Spanish culantro was changed to cilantro—though there is another fragrant herb currently called culantro that is also known as Vietnamese coriander. No agreement here: Plant names are as shrouded in mystery as the ancient spice trails.
Description: Cilantro is a green leafy annual herb that grows to about 3 feet on slender, hollow, branching stems. It’s a “two for one” plant: Like its cousin cumin, it produces white or pale pink flowers that, if allowed to go to seed, will yield clusters of small round “fruit.” When dried, they become the warm, citrusy spice known as coriander "seed." (More about coriander coming soon.)
In the grocery store, cilantro might be confused with flat-leafed Italian parsley: Both have medium green, lobed leaves with serrated edges. But cilantro’s leaves are delicate and feathery, and they can easily be torn or bruised. In contrast parsley’s leaves are tougher and crisper.
The aroma of the leaf is hard to describe. Crush it and hold it to your nose. Unless you’re a cilantrophobe, you’ll probably get a clean, herbaceous scent with a soft or “fatty” quality lurking in the background. The taste is equally green and fresh, but also faintly musky. The soft/musky attribute may come from the presence of the“fatty aldehyde, decenal, which also provides the ‘waxy’ note in orange peel,” as cited by Harold Magee in his excellent reference book, On Food and Cooking.
Where and How Cilantro Is Used: Native to the Middle East and Southern Europe, cilantro is an ancient herb now cultivated in many parts of the world, especially in temperate zone climates. According to Magee, it may be “the world’s most widely consumed fresh herb.”
Cilantro appears in the cuisines of Asia (with the exception of Japan), North Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and parts of Latin America. It may be used raw, or cooked with other ingredients. In Thailand, for example, both the leaves and the roots are pounded with other herbs and spices to make a fresh green curry paste. In the Middle East, red snapper or sea bass is stuffed with handfuls of cilantro and other aromatics, and then baked. In Morocco, it is often sprinkled over chicken or lamb tagine a few minutes before serving, not only adding its own subtle taste to the stew, but lifting the flavor of the other ingredients.
Medical miracle? In folk medicine, cilantro leaves have long been thought to ease stomach difficulties—perhaps for good reason. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that dodecenal, an antibacterial compound in fresh coriander leaves, is “twice as potent” as gentimicin, an antibiotic often prescribed to treat salmonella. Isao Kubo, a UC Berkeley chemist and study leader, suggested that “people should eat more salsa with their food, especially fresh salsa,” although he warned that it could take huge quantities of cilantro to have a palliative effect. “If you were eating a hot dog or hamburger, you would probably have to eat an equivalent weight of cilantro to have an optimal effect against food poisoning,” he said.
How to Use Cilantro in Cooking
1. Cilantro is a tender, perishable herb. In the supermarket, look for a bunch with green, perky leaves that have not yellowed or turned brown around the edges. Leaves or stems that are black are already rotting.
2. Storing cilantro for more than a day or two can be tricky. It is never advisable to wash and store the herb in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, as moisture will accelerate decomposition. I can’t tell you how many bags of cilantro I’ve had to toss out because of the slimy mess I discovered.
Instead, cut off the bottom ¼-inch of the stems with a sharp knife. Remove the rubber band or twist tie that is holding the bunch together. Lightly rinse the cilantro and shake off the water. Gently pat the leaves dry. Store upright in a glass of water in the refrigerator for a few days. Cilantro with roots still attached, often found in Asian markets, can also be stored successfully this way.
3. Uncooked cilantro leaves can be used whole as a garnish, as in Barbecued Lamb Tacos, or chopped, in larger quantities, in salsas, curry pastes and fresh chutneys. A gorgeous chutney in My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King combines 1 cup of cilantro leaves and stems with grated coconut, cumin, mint leaves, chiles, garlic and lime. You can also marinate beef or chicken fajitas in lime juice, onion and cilantro before grilling, or use cilantro in the marinade and also as a garnish for seviche, or raw fish or shrimp “cooked” in citrus juices.
4. When using cilantro as a garnish for cooked food, add the herb at the end of the cooking process in order to preserve some of its fresh, herbaceous flavor and bright green color. In Clams Bulhao Pato, for example, chopped cilantro is sprinkled over the clams after they’ve opened, just before bringing them to the table. In the same way, a handful of chopped cilantro is showered over Caldo Tlalpeno, a spicy Mexican chicken soup, just before serving.
5. For a more mellow flavor, cilantro may also be cooked along with other ingredients. In Raschida’s Berber Omelette, a combination of chopped parsley and cilantro is added to tomatoes, garlic and spices, and simmered for about 10 minutes. The eggs are then cracked into the mixture and cooked just until they have set. The dish is garnished with a little more chopped fresh parsley and cilantro. In Aurora’s Green Enchiladas, the salsa de tomatillo gets a deep green, succulent flavor from a handful of cilantro that is cooked along with the onions, chiles and tomatillos.
I'm no scientist, but I suspect that cilantro's fatty aldehydes may create a sensuous, satisfying mouthfeel when the herb is stirred into the pot in great quantities.
6. Cilantro combines well with many other fresh herbs including basil, thyme, mint, and parsley. I love cooking brown rice and stirring all of the above into the warm grains, with a little olive oil and sea salt.
Now, how about a few more SpiceLines recipes using cilantro? Here are seven to enjoy: