It's a Love-Hate Relationship: Cilantro
While cilantro/coriander looks like one of those yummy Apiaceae herbs (such as chervil, parsley, dill or carrots), it may not be a flavor you enjoy. Cilantro lovers call it "pungent, complex, and redolent of citrus and spice," while others claim it tastes "like bug spray, definitely bug spray." Flat leaf parsley looks similar, but nobody has a love-hate relationship with parsley. (Why would you bother to hate parsley?) There is even an "I hate cilantro" FaceBook group, and esteemed chef Julia Child hated it too.
Many have wondered: why would anybody eat this stuff? (Or, this is so good, I can't imagine why everybody doesn't love it.) There is, apparently, something different in the chemistry of those who don't like cilantro or coriander. Liking something is supposed to be advantageous to the animal eating it (or avoiding it). Sweet tastes tell us when fruit is ripe, sour flavors signal "unripe" and thus, not helpful to eat. To cilantro-phobes like me, cilantro or coriander leaves signal "avert mission! Turn back!" instead of "how lovely and delicious. Keep on eating."
Latest research suggests that what we've all long suspected is true: there is a genetic component to hating cilantro. When identical twins (genetically the same) were given cilantro or coriander to taste, they tended to rate it the same way as their twin, whether favorably or unfavorably. Fraternal twins (no more alike than siblings) often rated cilantro differently than their twin did.
An informal poll of my family showed that while my mother enjoys the flavor of cilantro, my two kids and I despise it. I dislike it strongly enough to request "no cilantro" when out to dinner. I did go so far as to smell ground cilantro at the health food store the other day, and it was sort of the smell of stale hay, but nothing hideous. Which doesn't mean I'll be lifting my ban on tasting cilantro any time soon.
Cilantro-dislike definitely runs in families, but there's a "nature vs. nurture" component to that aspect as well. Of course the children of cilantro-lovers would encounter it as often as I encountered parsley as a child. (And in fact, when I first saw cilantro used as a garnish in Tex-Mex style food, I gobbled it down, thinking it was parsley. It wasn't. Ugh.) And it's no surprise that cilantro-avoiders like me would avoid giving cilantro to their children.
Cilantro is also called "Chinese parsley" or "coriander leaves." In North America, we call the plant "cilantro," but there is no concept for "cilantro" in British. Apparently they call it "coriander leaves," "coriander berries," "coriander roots," even "coriander greens," says Gernot Hatzer. Now coriander, the ripe fruit of the cilantro plant, is something I have always included in "pickling spices," along with dill seed, cinnamon, bay leaf, peppercorns and clove. Along with many other spices, coriander is mentioned in the Bible, which makes sense, as it originally was cultivated by people in the Middle East.
And remember, the name, whether cilantro or coriander, is not consistent across time and geography. Cilantro is just the Spanish word for coriander, so although they sound different, they mean pretty much the same thing. It makes sense that we would use a word from the Hispanic part of the world, since they co-opted cilantro's Middle Eastern spiciness as the perfect foil for chili pepper-spicy food. (I hear.)
The entire plant: roots, stems, leaves, flower and fruit, is edible and is used in some culture, if not in yours. Most parts of this plant are used in Thai cooking (especially the ground roots), Indian food (chopped leaves, roasted berries), South East Asian food, etc. I tend to avoid it, so I am not aware of its presence.
Coriandrum sativum, the leaves of which are called cilantro and the ripened berries coriander, cannot be kept leafy and green by pruning it as with basil or mint. Slow-bolt cultivars have been bred, although when cilantro decides to go to seed, it goes to seed (bolts) whether you've harvested enough fresh leaves or not. On the other hand, leaves are ready to harvest as soon as 25 days after planting, so most cilantro-lovers advise planting cilantro in successive crops, spaced a few weeks apart, or simply letting it self-seed at will. Like its cousins, dill, parsley and carrot, cilantro grows a substantial, hard-to-transplant tap root, so it's best to transplant while very young. Unfortunately, cilantro is ready to harvest long before its natural pairings of tomatoes and hot peppers are ready to eat. Cilantro lovers find a way around that. Cultivars 'Santo', 'Slow-Bolt', 'Jantar', 'Calypso', 'Asia Choice', 'Glory TW', 'Slow-Bolt Winner', and 'Tang' may be slower to bolt than other varieties.
Cilantro and coriander are prized by herbalists and Eastern medicine practitioners as anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants. So if you don't hate cilantro, odds are that you enjoy it, and you should consider planting some this year.Click the links below for more information.
More names for cilantro from Gernot Hatzer.
Flavour Journal about cilantro
Cilantro's edgy power A pro-cilantro blog post by Sarah Khan.
Wall Street Jounal article about cilantro love and cilantro hatred.
PHOTO OF FRESH LEAVES COURTESY Thamizhpparithi Maari, WIKIPEDIA. VINTAGE PRINT FROM Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen, 1897.