Cilantro is one of the most polarizing foods out there. People either love it or hate it, with opinions rarely falling in the middle. Most people who dislike cilantro describe its flavor as being similar to soap or metal. Some reactions to cilantro are so strong that even just the scent can make a stomach turn. But for those who love cilantro, it is the epitome of freshness with its bright, breezy flavor. So why such strong opposing views?
What is Cilantro?
Cilantro is the leafy green portion of coriander, a plant whose seeds and roots are also used to season food. Both coriander and cilantro are used extensively in cuisines throughout Asia, Central, and South America. Although coriander and cilantro are part of the same plant, their flavor is quite different. Cilantro contains a natural chemical compound, called an aldehyde, that can taste unpleasant to some people.
It's a Chemical Thing
Aldehydes are compounds that are also produced in the soap making process and by some insects. For this reason, some people describe the flavor of cilantro as soap-like or as tasking similar to a stink bug. Fortunately, not all people interpret the flavor of these aldehydes in this way.
Nature vs. Nurture
How we interpret the flavor of aldehydes is partly rooted in genetics. Two olfactory receptor genes have recently been discovered to be linked to our interpretation of cilantro as either soapy or herbal. These genes were discovered when the genetic code of over 30,000 people were compared to whether they described cilantro as enjoyable or soapy, although carrying the gene did not guarantee a dislike for cilantro.
So what gives? Taste preferences are as much nurture as they are nature. As with many things, what we like to eat is a complex mix of our genes, what we have been exposed to, and what we are familiar or comfortable with. Through repeated exposure and associating cilantro with new and enjoyable foods, some have found their opinion of this love-or-hate herb to change.
Getting Over Cilantro
For those looking to acclimate themselves to cilantro, mincing, pulverizing, or crushing cilantro is a good place to start. Bruising cilantro through these methods releases enzymes that break down the offending aldehyde compounds, leaving them less flavorful and aromatic and allowing other flavor compounds to shine through.
Cooking cilantro also greatly reduces its potency, which is why most recipes call for adding it fresh as a topper after cooking. If you're looking for a little cilantro flavor without a super strong in-your-face presence, try adding it to food as it cooks to lessen its strength.