General

How cilantro became the world's most polarizing herb

People tend to have strong feelings about food. For example, is white chocolate really chocolate or just some fake monstrosity masquerading as chocolate? (Fun fact: it is chocolate.) But another food has the battle lines deeply drawn — cilantro. This bold-flavored yet petite and leafy herb is either loved or reviled depending on who you talk to. So, why do some people hate cilantro so much, and what’s the deal with the “tastes like soap” claim?

What is cilantro?

Cilantro is a leafy plant that is known by different names such as Mexican or Chinese parsley. It’s no surprise that the plant is a member of the parsley family. And in many cases, it looks quite similar to actual parsley. Unlike other herbs, cilantro is rarely available in dried form. Because of this, it’s an ingredient that you will use fresh to add the best flavor to your dish. It’s a common ingredient in a variety of cultural cuisines including Latin American, Middle Eastern, and Asian dishes.

The cilantro plot twist

Fresh green cilantro beside large bowl of brown coriander seeds
Credit: SakSa/ Shutterstock

Cilantro is also known by another name, coriander. It turns out that cilantro and coriander are the same plant, except that cilantro refers to a specific stage during the plant’s growth cycle. So what gives with the name change? Well “cilantro” is the Spanish word for coriander. But in particular, cilantro refers to the earlier portion of the herb’s growth cycle before it sprouts flowers and begins to develop seeds. Both cilantro and coriander have distinctive flavors that are nothing alike. But it’s cilantro’s flavor that has some people crying foul.

A flavor that grows on you

Officially, cilantro’s flavor profile is described as pungent, lemony, bright, and a little peppery. Meanwhile, lay people will tell you that you know cilantro when you eat it because it has a flavor that comes through in whatever dish you add it to. Typically, you’ll only use the leaves and will discard the stems. And most recipes will recommend that you use it as a final additive to prevent cooking the leaves and losing that flavor. But for some people, that flavor profile is just plain nasty, and it comes across as if they were sucking on a bar of soap. So what gives?

The skinny on this soap flavor thing

Bars of fancy colored soap resting in pieces on a rustic wooden table
Credit: Lana_M/ Shutterstock

In a real plot twist, it turns out that if you have a deep loathing for cilantro and think that it feels like eating a spoonful of Dawn soap, it could be genetics. Yes, really. In particular, it’s a flavor aversion that’s linked to a genetic variation found almost exclusively in white, Middle Eastern and Latino populations.

The OR6A2 gene

Much like anything else that has to do with genetics, variations can happen. Two brown-eyed parents can give birth to a blue-eyed child if both of them carry the recessive genes for blue eyes. And the OR6A2 gene is responsible for helping us interpret flavor. Specifically, it manages how we perceive aldehydes, a compound that is found in very high doses in cilantro.

For most of us, the gene translates cilantro’s aldehyde-heavy flavor profile exactly as we described it above. But in 17 percent of white populations, and three to four percent of Latino and Middle Eastern populations, the gene doesn’t quite deliver. Instead of depicting cilantro as a pungent, lemony, and slightly peppery herb, it offers the taste of soap.

Is there a cure for this?

Wedge of roasted chicken on wooden plank garnished with fresh green cilantro
Credit: Brent Hofacker/ Shutterstock

Being aldehyde averse is nothing to worry about. There’s no cure for not being able to properly process aldehyde as a flavor compound. While it might not make you much fun at a Mexican restaurant, it’s not the end of the world. If you’re one of those people whose OR6A2 gene is the variant kind, buck up. You’re not alone as there are plenty of people who despise cilantro — including people who don’t have the OR6A2 variation.

But if you’re determined to join the cilantro-loving population, a good idea is to cook with it rather than leaving it raw. Cooking cilantro helps to reduce the potency of its flavor and can help you acclimate to the herb. Likewise, rather than using whole leaves, opt to chop, puree, or pulverize them in some manner. This can help reduce the aldehyde strength and make the herb more palatable.

Featured Image Credit: Marina Rich/ Shutterstock