Love it or leave it

Cilantro, the culinary world’s most divisive herb

Lisa Catterall


Understanding one of the culinary world’s most divisive herbs creates a dilemma. Once found only in South American, Asian, and Middle Eastern cooking, cilantro has made its way into the hearts of many.

Cilantro—coriandrum sativum—the herb that tears families apart. Bright, citrusy and strongly flavoured, cilantro can make or break a dish. It brings authenticity to Latin and Asian cuisine and a refreshing pop of colour to plates. Advocates argue that the sharp, fresh flavour complements everything from curry to salsa. But for some, its overpowering soapiness, similar to the fragrance of bubble bath or hand lotion, can ruin a dish.

Cilantro’s availability and popularity have increased due to influence from Latin American and Asian cuisines.
“When we first opened Tres Carnales we encountered people who were unsure whether they liked cilantro or not. Now, guests ask for extra cilantro on the side,” says Edgar Gutierrez, chef and co-owner of Tres Carnales and Rostizado.

“It’s not as popular as basil, but every year we see sales rising,” says Greg Marlin of Morinville Greenhouses.

For generations, scientists have sought to understand the reasons behind the herb’s divisive qualities. What is at the root of the cilantro divide? Is it genetic? Can it be overcome?

The answer, as it turns out, is complicated. Much of cilantro’s potency comes from its aroma, which lies at the heart of many initial reactions to the herb. Pungent and peppery, the scent comes from a number of chemical compounds, called aldehydes. For many who are sensitive to the herb’s soapy aroma and flavour, cilantro’s aldehydes are associated with bath or cleaning products, not appetizing dishes.

Though scientists have identified a number of genetic links to a cilantro aversion, a direct causality has not yet been determined. In one of the most often-cited studies on the subject, scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center surveyed 500 sets of twins on their perceptions for both the scent and flavour of cilantro. The study observed that the vast majority (80 per cent) of identical twins shared the same response to the herb, whether liking or disliking it. In fraternal twins, preferences were shared less than half of the time, indicating that genetics played at least some role in flavour preferences.

Studies have identified a cluster of olfactory-sensory genes, which influence a person’s sense of smell. In these olfactory receptors, one gene in particular, OR6A2, is particularly sensitive to aldehydes. As a result, many with this genetic variant identify cilantro as having a soap-like aroma and flavour.

However, scientists have not been able to isolate these genes’ role in cilantro flavour perception and preference. In short, no particular genetic cause has been identified that can predict with 100 per cent certainty a person’s predisposition to cilantro. So, while our genetic makeup can shape our opinion and create an initial bias, its influence can be overcome.

Cultural factors and exposure play a role in influencing flavour preferences, as is often the case with many strong ingredients like anchovies, blue cheese, or durian. Gutierrez, who now works with cilantro on a daily basis, explains that he wasn’t always a fan.

“When I was younger my mother used to add cilantro to her stews and soups,” he says, “I didn’t like the smell of it when it was being cooked. But after a while, I developed a love for the freshness and distinct aroma of both cooked and fresh cilantro.”

“I love cilantro, it’s great when used in the right places,” says Daniel Costa, chef/ owner of Corso 32. “I don’t use it in my restaurants, but that’s only because it’s not really used in Italian cuisine.”

As with any herb, freshness is key. Cilantro, native to the Mediterranean, can be grown in planters or herb gardens and does best in the cooler weather of spring and early fall. In hot summer weather, cilantro bolts quickly, sending up lanky stalks with small white flowers. The leaves are the most-often used part of the plant, but the roots of the plant are edible and add a depth of flavour to Thai recipes. The seeds, which become available just after the flowers fall off, are more commonly known as coriander. When they appear, they can be replanted to grow more cilantro, or used to add a citrusy note to recipes.

One way for ambitious cilantrophobes to begin adventuring with the herb is to start with coriander, often featured in garam masala, harissa, dukkah and curries, offering diners a soft introduction to some of the notes present in cilantro.

Morinville Greenhouses offers both fresh cut and potted plants year round. As fresh complementary ingredients for salsas, salads, and marinades come into season at local farmers’ markets and greenhouses, now is the perfect time to add cilantro to your shopping list. It’s ripe for the picking.

Chicken Cilantro Salad

This easy to put together Thai-ish salad is not only a great way to use up leftover cooked meats, it goes to work in a jar. Keep the dressing separate from the chicken and vegetables until right before serving then shake together. Use whatever vegetables you have on hand (peas pods would be nice) and add more or less heat, ginger and garlic to taste. The sugar is necessary for the flavour balance.

1 T canola oil
½ jalapeno chile, minced (remove the ribs and seeds for less heat)
1 T minced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
fish sauce to taste (optional)
kosher or sea salt and freshly-cracked black pepper
1 t brown sugar
¼ c rice vinegar
1 sml carrot, grated
1 sml cucumber, grated
¼ red pepper, thinly sliced
1-2 thinly sliced radishes
½ green onion, chopped fine
1 c fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
shredded lettuce (optional)
2 c shredded cooked chicken, meat only (or pork or fish)
½ pkg (8.8 ounces) cellophane noodles, prepared according to package instructions
sesame seeds (optional)

In a small saucepan, heat oil over medium. Add jalapeno, ginger, garlic and fish sauce if using. Season. Cook, stirring, until garlic is golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add sugar and vinegar and cook until sauce is slightly thickened, about 6 minutes. Refrigerate until cool, at least 15 minutes (or up to 1 week).

To serve: toss the meat, noodles and vegetables with the dressing. Garnish with sesame seeds if desired.

Serves 4.

Cilantro Chimichurri

“Good to serve with sashimi, raw beef or lamb tataki.”
— Chef Andrew Fung, Nineteen.

2 c soda water
2 T kosher salt
2 c chopped cilantro
1 c extra-virgin olive oil
4-6 T rice vinegar
1 fresh red chili pepper, chopped with seed
3 T roasted garlic rough chopped

Mix all ingredients. Makes about 2 cups.

Lisa Catterall, an Edmonton-based freelance writer and cilantrophobe-turned- fanatic, has been romanced by the fresh taste and colour cilantro adds to any dish.