Are you born with a taste for cilantro?

Over the years, I’ve learned to expect to find the flavor of cilantro in Mexican foods, but lately the herb (and the related spice, coriander) seem to be appearing in cuisines everywhere. Most recently, cilantro showed up floating in a bowl of Mulligatawny soup I purchased at a local Indian restaurant. More surprisingly, coriander showed up as an ingredient in “White Lantern,” a summer beer from Sam Adams that a friend introduced me to recently. I picked out the leaves from the soup, and didn’t finish the beer. I don’t like the taste of cilantro and coriander. To be more precise, I find the flavors repulsive. 

These and earlier experiences inspired me to conduct an informal survey among my friends. I learned that while a few are in my camp, most of them love cilantro. Happy for them that using this herb is currently trendy. I then turned to the Internet for clues to why there is such a love-hate dichotomy toward this flavor. I found that there’s a good reason for it.

A Wikipedia article told me that, “many people experience an unpleasant soapy taste or a rank smell and avoid the leaves. The flavors have also been compared to those of the stink bug, and similar chemical groups are involved (aldehydes). The different perceptions of the coriander leaves’ taste is likely genetic, with some people having no response to the aromatic chemical that most find pleasant, while simultaneously being sensitive to certain offending unsaturated aldehydes.”

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So, what if you don’t like cilantro? What if, like me, the stink bug comparison is perfect? Can you develop a taste for the herb? I had assumed that if I just ate enough Mexican food, I would get used to the flavor, the same way that I now enjoy hotter curries. It hasn’t happened. The author of an article in the New York Times titled “Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault,” recounts that by repeated exposure, he was eventually able to better appreciate the taste. I’m not willing to sacrifice eating pleasure to such a drawn-out cause.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is an annual herb in the family Apiaceae. It is native from southern Europe and North Africa to southwestern Asia. The leaves may be referred to as coriander leaves, fresh coriander, Chinese parsley, or cilantro. Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, deriving from the species name, “coriandrum,” and is the common term in North America for coriander leaves, due to their extensive use in Mexican cuisine.

The name Coriandrum itself, used by the ancient Roman author Pliny, is apparently derived from the Greek word “koros,” (a bed bug), in reference to the stinky smell of the leaves. I rest my case!

As far as I can tell, “cilantro” is used when referring to the leaves, and “coriander” is used when talking about the seeds. Same plant, two different parts. All parts of the plant are edible — the roots apparently have a deeper, more intense flavor than the leaves — but the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are the parts most traditionally used in cooking. 

Coriander has expanded well out of its native range, and is common in Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Mediterranean, Tex-Mex, Latin American, Portuguese, Chinese, African, and Scandinavian cuisine. Its use is ancient, as evidenced by findings of seeds in the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, and in much older “pre-pottery” sites in Israel.

The plant is in the botanical family Apiaceae (also known as Umbelliferaceae), the parsley family, which includes anise, carrot and dill. It likes a warm, dry, light soil, though it also does well in somewhat heavier soils. Sow seeds in mild, dry weather in mid spring, about 1/2 inch deep and 8 or 9 inches apart, and cover them evenly with soil. The seeds are slow in germinating. The seeds may also be sown indoors in March, on warmed trays, for planting out in May.

Pam Baxter is an avid organic gardener who lives in Kimberton, PA. Direct email to pcbaxter@verizon.net, or send regular mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442.