Blog: Cilantro

Burt Ross

Many moons ago, when I lived back on the East Coast, my sister-in-law Barbara served me lobster bisque. It tasted awful, but none of the other diners seemed anything but delighted with their soup. I didn’t know what to say. I thought about remaining silent, but silence has never been my strong suit.

“Barbara, the soup doesn’t taste quite right,” I observed kind of sheepishly. She brought me a little piece of a green herb and asked me to smell it. “Yep, that’s it,” I said. She explained that the guilty herb was something called “cilantro,” and most people loved it. I, of course, never seem to be part of “most people.”

It had taken over 65 years for me to encounter this herb, but when I moved here six years ago, I needed to be on the constant lookout for it. Cilantro seems to be a popular flavoring on the West Coast, and when I took a trip to Mexico, it was omnipresent. I think the Mexicans put it in everything from salads to soups. I wouldn’t be surprised if they even put it in their peanut butter. They love their cilantro. 

I wanted to understand whether anybody else on the planet had this same aversion to cilantro, so I did what I always do when I want to learn something, I went right to my friends at Google. Without Google, I would know nothing. I would be a veritable ignoramus.

Google came through again. “Cilantro, you either love it or hate it,” Google began. “There is a small but vehement group of people who hate cilantro with a passion,” Google observed. I could not have said it any better myself.

A study conducted at the University of Toronto found that cilantro aversion differs dramatically depending upon your ethnicity. (You would think the University of Toronto would have more important things to study.) People from the Middle East apparently love it and 17 percent of Caucasians dislike it.

But why this dramatically different response to what otherwise is an unassuming herb? Believe it or not, most anti-cilantro folks share a group of olfactory-receptor genes called OR6A2. (This is far more information than I ever wanted to know.) So, like with everything else, genes are at work here, and for those of us who have these genes, cilantro tastes a lot like soap.

The late and great chef Julia Child apparently shared this anti-cilantro gene with me and thought as little of cilantro as I do. When interviewed by Larry King in 2002, Julia Child made it clear she hated cilantro. When asked if she would ever order it, her response was unequivocal, “Never–I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”

So, if you are planning to host a party and to serve cilantro, a word of advice from me—don’t be at all surprised if some of your guests throw it on the floor.