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> food
Dear Cilantro: I Hate You!

She was 7 when she ate the little green leaf, and there the battle began. The tale of a lifelong struggle with bad taste.

By Jean Tang

Posted: February 21, 2007

THE FIRST TIME I met my enemy, I was 7 years old, sampling seafood soup at a Chinese banquet. I picked up my spoon, slurped, and spat. “What is this, Mom?” I whined. “It’s disgusting. Tastes like soap.”

“No, it doesn’t,” came back Mom. “Don’t be so impolite.”

“See, I’m not the only one who thinks so,” I said, pointing a finger at my brother. Two years older, Jeffrey was far more polite, so rather than actually gag, he was simply miming a gag, his eyes bulging.

We got to the bottom of it. The soapy taste was the product of an herb called cilantro, also known as coriander leaves—”xiang cai,” or “fragrant greens” in Mandarin. It was fragrant all right—it felt like ingesting perfume. I quickly learned how to say “no cilantro” in Chinese: “Bu yao xiang cai,” the word “bu” being the critical “not.” In restaurant after Chinese restaurant, my mother would do the ordering, and at the end I would jump in.

“Bu yao xiang cai,” I’d exclaim.

“Yao xiang cai?” waiters would ask, confused.

“Bu yao, bu yao,” I’d say, with a hand slit motion across the throat, or a frantic karate chop.

“Bu yao,” Jeff would chorus, with a polite but worried wrinkle.

Eight times out of ten, the waiters laughed. “Mei you xiang cai,” they’d say, meaning the dishes didn’t have any cilantro to begin with. To which I narrowed my eyes and let out a Marge Simpson–esque groan.

I began holding my breath in the cilantro section of the grocery store, or wincing when I spotted a profrusion of the tiny jagged leaves. I started holding all herbs in suspicion—till the parsley, mint, thyme, chive, oregano, chervil or scallion was proven innocent. I got used to describing cilantro to people who gave me quizzical looks, among them servers of burgers, barbecue, French, Turkish, Italian and Southern food who were utterly justified in their ignorance: After all, none of these foods use cilantro. But I wanted to be sure.

And oh, did I make sure! I perfected the throat-slit-motion and the karate chop, and in time I added crossed wrists and a two-handed wave. I claimed to be allergic, spun shameless tales about hospitals and seizures and breathing apparatus and—one time—death. I sent back pho in vats, created a surplus of cilantro-ridden tacos and banh mi, and frowned severely at offensive garnishes. I dipped my pinky nail into soups and curries, flicking out any hint of green. I steered clear of salsa and guacamole (group dips), most curries, and all Southwestern restaurants. Asian fusion made me wary. I knew I was being high-maintenance, but gagging is gagging. After all, I seldom sent back wine, fussed about whether my steak was rare or medium-rare, or required anything served on the side. I was a model customer and an enthusiastic dining companion—except for this one itty-bitty adjustment and a few fragrant green lies.

Eventually, I learned how to say “no cilantro” in three more languages: Vietnamese (“không muon ngo”), Thai (“mai sai pak chi”), and Spanish (“no quiero cilantro”). I was safe in the knowledge that if I ever sprang for a drunken tattoo, it’d say “no cilantro” in a few languages, plus Braille. Only once did anyone ever treat my dislike personally.

“I don’t know where you get off dissing cilantro. I make cilantro pesto. I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Andrew, a new friend, shouted into my ear at a noisy Mexican bar. This time I was the one with the quizzical look; no one had ever called me to task on my preferences. When our cilantro-free salsa arrived, reassuringly red, I shot Andrew a catty grin and hogged the chips.

There is a chemical reason for the dislike, of course, but out loud, it always sounds cheesy or fishy. As far as food scientists know, we cilantro haters number an estimated 15 percent of the population. Quite simply, we are missing some enzyme that processes cilantro. No different, really, from how some Asians grow red when they drink, or lactose-intolerant folks grow, well, incontinent when they drink milk. But because it alters smell and taste—subjective perceptions—rather than producing a mere anatomical effect, and furthermore because it is more severe in some people than others, it’s easy to view with skepticism or treat as a voluntary dislike or a bothersome stubbornness—like a child who refuses to eat broccoli.

But even the subjectivity isn’t so easy to categorize. I am, for example, 100 percent fine with coriander seeds—but not all cilantro haters feel this way. A cilantro hater named Jeremy described cilantro on his blog with the words “rotting corpse”—an experience I have never had. Cilantro lovers often describe the herb as “garlicky,” or a “powerful concentration of onions, garlic and chives,” which to me sounds utterly delicious! But then there are cilantro lovers who echo my experience—that it is mildly “musky” or “soapy” or “redolent of perfume.” I can certainly accept that they can stand what I cannot, but I can’t help wondering, in the same way one might wonder what “blue” and/or “round” look like to others: are our perceptions of taste similar? Do we experience “fruity” or “sweet” in similar ways? Is a “long finish” in wine different for one person than it is for another? Or carbonation?

As a food writer, I often encounter allies.

“Cilantro takes away everything else,” scowled Turkish chef Orhan Yegen, also known in food circles as the “pita Nazi.”

“If you don’t like cilantro, you can’t eat sawtooth, either” Chinese chef Simpson Wong told me on a shopping expedition to Chinatown. Sure enough, the knife-like leaves, also known as culantro, Javanese coriander, Mexican coriander, Thai coriander, thorny coriander, or—my favorite for its implication of bad character—false coriander, emitted the offensive smell—only more intensely, as I discovered when I brought the package up to my nose.

“Leave out the cilantro,” admonished pastry chef Pichet Ong, while we were having dinner at the restaurant Grace in Los Angeles. Chefs are more likely to listen to other chefs, so I sat back and relaxed.

I wouldn’t want to say I’ve mellowed, but it was around this time that I met a chef named Vik Lulla. Lulla, who cooks Chinese food using Indian spices, didn’t get me to like cilantro, but he did get me to knowingly eat it—and on camera, to boot. I was hosting Real Meals, an online cooking show. Lulla was making coconut-scented shrimp soup, and before I had a chance to object, he snuck in a few sprigs of cilantro.

D’oh! I thought. But I couldn’t refuse; this was a single-take demonstration. Then I took a sip. And it was… surprisingly bearable. In fact, I hardly tasted anything at all. I took another sip. The soup was so good and the cilantro so… unnoticeable.

Had my taste buds changed? I formed a mental catalogue: over the years, my snack preferences have swung from sweet to salty, and I’ve grown to like tofu and tolerate bitter melon. Sugary cereal has become too sweet, packaged food too rubbery. I like asparagus, and I’m no longer allergic to cats.

Or perhaps nothing’s changed physiologically, and I am simply growing more tolerant. Mellow with age, like wine? In which case, I realized with horror, I have been inadvertently exaggerating a fake handicap!

My world suddenly opened up. Hills could be charged, milestones conquered, Andrew’s pesto consumed, hallelujah—I could eat cilantro! The next time I went to a Southwestern restaurant, I ordered a quesadilla, and dug in with verve.

“Won’t it have cilantro?” my friend John asked with furrowed brow.

“I don’t care,” I said, breaking off a forkful and putting it in my mouth. Then I yelled “Shit!” and spat into my napkin.

Between work trips to Asia and beyond, New York–based travel writer Jean Tang hosts the Internet cooking show “Real Meals.tv.”

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