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Feb 17, 2009

A Cilantro Discussion

bunch of cilantro
Who knew? An interesting article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal revealed that many people actually hate cilantro enough that they start or join anti-cilantro organizations. There's a Facebook networking site with nearly 900 members called "I HATE CILANTRO," and Facebook hosts 40 other sites dedicated to hating that herb. The website ihatecilantro.com has 2577 members as of this morning, and sports this tagline: "Cilantro. The most offensive food known to man." Blogger itself hosts a hate-cilantro blog, although it's pretty tongue-in-cheek. But then I can't help but think most of this anti-cilantro stuff is pretty tongue-in-cheek.

Except for the stories that seem...well, a bit unhinged. The WSJ article discusses a Chicago man who bought a takeout burrito after work and drove it 20 miles home. When he finally bit into it and discovered cilantro, he grew so inflamed that he jumped in his car, drove 20 miles back to the restaurant, "raised hell," and demanded another burrito free of cilantro. You've got to admit: that's a bit extreme. Why didn't he just pull out the cilantro? Another person cited in the article ordered a home-delivered burrito with no cilantro. Discovering cilantro on the first bite, he or she tossed the entire burrito across the living room in a fit of pique.

Other people make more reasonable protests, like the woman who ordered Manhattan clam chowder in a restaurant and found it flavored with cilantro. As she wrote in her own anti-cilantro blog: "I thought to myself: 'No, it couldn't be. Really. Is this a joke? Who puts cilantro in Manhattan clam chowder?' " Personally, I like cilantro in many things, but I have to agree with her here: it doesn't belong in Manhattan clam chowder.

Also known as coriander, cilantro is a staple flavoring in Asian, South American, and other world cuisines. It's been in use by humans for a long time---found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, mentioned in Exodus, and cultivated in ancient Greece. With such a history, one could actually think of it as a "noble herb."

It has a strong scent, and apparently that's the problem. Dr. Charles J. Wysocki, a behavioral neuroscientist at Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center, which conducts research into taste and smell, speculated to the WSJ that "dislike of cilantro stems from its odor, not its taste. His hypothesis is that those who don't like it are unable to detect chemicals in the leaf that are pleasing to those who like the herb."

I definitely like the scent, finding it fresh, uplifting, and even exciting. For me, cilantro makes a burrito rock, makes salsa sing. I love buying a bunch of cilantro, placing it stems-down in a glass of water, and letting the whole shebang rest atop a kitchen counter for a few days. Sometimes I buy cilantro, chop it up, stuff the small pieces into an ice cube tray, fill it water, and freeze it---the cubes last for a month or two, and can be thrown into wokked dishes, Asian soups, etc. I've tried to grow cilantro, but haven't had much luck; yet, this summer, I'll give it another try because I like the way it looks, smells, and tastes.

I'm not alone. Given the prevalence of cilantro in cuisines around the world, it's obvious that many others love cilantro's taste and scent. On a poetry website I found these lovely stanzas by someone known only as jh89:

Walking along and seeing the steam rise
the moment was truly beauty to behold,
Now under the palest blue of skies
a world of pleasure to eyes mind and nose

Cilantro and clover
fill the morning breeze,
Cilantro and clover
sets me free.

Note: you can read the entire poem here.
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