Posted: May 06, 2014 8:00 AM
 
Why is cilantro so polarizing? It might be genetic. A new study shows that whether you think cilantro is the perfect herbal addition or whether it — literally — tastes like dirt, might be in your genes. We explain the love it or hate it passionate response to America's most divisive herb.
Photo credit: Sebastiaan de Stigter/ iStock/360/ Getty Images

For a small part of the population cilantro inspires something lovingly coined "cilantrophobia" by the cooking — and eating — community. So why are the leafy green parts of the plant that give us coriander seeds so polarizing? We find out.

Cilantro: Love it or hate it

There's a whole website and Facebook page dedicated to the fight against cilantro appropriately named, I Hate Cilantro. They state their tongue-in-cheek description as: "Cilantro. The most offensive food known to man" going on to welcome new readers and members by adding, "Welcome! You are visiting the web site of a growing community of cilantro haters. We are, however, rational people. In fact, we are the most rational people on earth. No normally functioning human being would ever in a lifetime consider cilantro edible. It's the reason you are here. Please browse the site in support of your anti-cilantro confederates and help spread the word any way you can: Cilantro: No!"

History, chemistry and science, oh my

Many of us happily use cilantro as a mixed-in ingredient or as a perfect garnish. But cilantrophobes would say we've just ruined our — or their — meal describing the added flavor as "buggy," "soapy" or my favorite "just like dirt." It turns out that these confederates are united by more than a simple dislike of a seemingly innocent ingredient.

The great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain's constant updating of its database of experiences.

In an article in The New York Times, neuroscientist Jay Gottfried draws on history and chemistry to explain what's happening there. He says, "The great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain's constant updating of its database of experiences." What he means is that our senses are meant to be strong; anthropologically they had to be for survival purposes. Strong emotions and reactions to smell and taste were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators. And chemically, he explains that when we taste a food the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability. But what happens if the flavor doesn't fit a familiar food experience? Gottfried explains, "[If the flavor] fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents, dirt or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs."

There's also science behind the hate. In the largest genome-wide association study of cilantro preference to date, 23andMe scientists compared genetic data from more than 25,000 individuals with European ancestry who declared whether they liked the taste of fresh cilantro or whether they thought cilantro had a soapy taste. They report that people with the AA genotype had higher odds of perceiving a soapy taste in cilantro and higher odds of disliking the herb compared to those with the AG genotype. What this means is that genetics are at least partially to blame for the love-hate battle with cilantro.

Cooking with cilantro... or not

If you are a cilantrophobe, some herb substitutions include the fresh, leafy parts of parsley, celery, basil or mint leaves depending on the kind of dish you're making. But if you love cilantro, have we got a recipe for you.

Featured chef {and cilantro recipe}

Sheri Silver of Donuts, Dresses and Dirt Sheri Silver is one of our favorite food bloggers. Not only are her photos ridiculously stunning, but every single recipe she shares is unique, creative, delicious and — importantly — doable for regular cooks like you and me. Sheri is a contributor to Babble Food and Buttoned Up and writes on her personal lifestyle blog Donuts, Dresses and Dirt about baking and cooking, gardening, parenting and her adventures in and around New York City.

About cilantro, Sheri says, "I'm always surprised when I hear a strong and negative reaction to cilantro. I've always found it to be a mild, delicate herb that complements most "tex-mex" style dishes beautifully. Now tarragon? That's another story…" Sheri's recipe for Wonton Cups filled with Mango Curry Shrimp which she adapted from Bon Appetit is a simple crowd-pleaser filled with fresh, delicious ingredients and topped with... wait for it... a generous helping of cilantro.

Wonton Cups filled with Mango Curry Shrimp Salad
Photo credit: Sheri Silver

Wonton cups filled with mango curry shrimp salad

Ingredients:

  • 24 wonton wrappers (thawed if frozen)
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro plus extra whole leaves for garnish
  • 5 teaspoons lime juice
  • 2 teaspoons mango chutney
  • 3/4 teaspoon Thai green curry paste (more or less, depending on how much heat you prefer)
  • 1 pound cooked shrimp, coarsely chopped

Directions:

  1. Make the wonton cups. Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees F. Brush the wonton squares lightly with oil. Then press them gently into miniature muffin cups, oiled side down. Bake the wonton cups for 8-10 minutes or until they're light golden brown. Cool them out of the pan on a wire rack. These can be made 3 days ahead. Just cover and store them at room temperature.
  2. Make the shrimp salad: Whisk together the mayonnaise, cilantro, lime juice, chutney and curry paste in a medium bowl. Stir in the shrimp and season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper. This can be can be made 1 day ahead and refrigerated.
  3. Just before serving, spoon the mixture into the wonton cups and garnish with... cilantro leaves.

Share with us!^ So we have to ask: Will you be trying Sheri's fabulous recipe — with or without cilantro?

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