Love it or loathe it: The polarization of cilantro

By Catharine L. Kaufman

Cilantro (aka Chinese parsley or coriander) is probably the most-loved, while at the same time most-hated, herb on the planet. The cornerstone of Middle Eastern, Latin American and Southeast Asian cuisines, cilantro has caused culinary divisiveness among families and nations. Here’s the nitty-gritty and a little PR boost on this much-maligned Biblical botanical.

Roots and Relatives

The glossy, bright green scalloped leaves are called cilantro or Chinese parsley, and the seeds are referred to as coriander. Ancients from India, Egypt, Rome and China have revered cilantro for thousands of years for its culinary charm and medicinal properties. A close cousin to carrots and parsley, cilantro is a hardy annual that originated in southern Europe, North Africa and western Asia, and happened to be one of the plants thriving in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Confessions of a Cilantrophobe

If you are repulsed by the taste, smell or even being in the same room as cilantro, you are in good culinary company. Charter member of the anti-cilantro club was the late great Julia Child, who described the green herb as “having kind of a dead taste.”

There is an “I Hate Cilantro” Facebook page and blog with a growing community of cilantro-despising followers. Scientific studies now propose that the cilantro aversion might be caused by a genetic predisposition. According to behavioral neuroscientist Charles J. Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, “Strong evidence suggests there’s a heritable component to the reactions that people have to cilantro, whether you’re a hater or a lover.”

Cilantrophobes experience something akin to the taste of a mouthful of soap when eating the stuff. Funny enough, the similar aldehydes or fat molecules that give cilantro its distinct smell and flavor, are also found in soaps and lotions. For some chemical reason, cilantro detesters perceive the soap aldehyde flavor rather than the sweet, pungent and aromatic cilantro aldehyde.

For all you cilantro loathers out there, I’m sorry to say that the fragrant herb has assimilated nicely into the American gustatory scene and is relished by millions. As for finding a suitable substitute, cilantro is irreplaceable, but you can try blending assorted herbs like chopped parsley, mint and oregano or basil as a half-baked alternative.

cilantroPerks of Parsley

Packed with essential oils (both leaves and seeds), minerals including potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron, folic acid and Vitamins A, K and C, cilantro has been found to put the skids on everything from digestive ailments and creaky joints to an aging brain and “bad” cholesterol levels.

An anti-oxidant phyto-nutrient powerhouse, this mighty herb warrior boosts the immune system fending off various viruses, has diuretic properties found to control mild cases of diabetes, and with high dietary fiber acts like nature’s roto-rooter for the intestines.

Cilantro also detoxifies the body of heavy metals, wards off inflammation, maintains healthy vision, bone mass and skin, and has been linked to protecting against oral cancers.

Cilantro’s seedy counterpart, coriander, has been used as a homeopathic Viagra, deodorant, fungicide and pain reliever, to mention a few.

Turn Over a New Leaf

To get the greatest flavor oomph out of cilantro, chop this fragrant herb just before using as a garnish for soups, stirfries, chilis, Thai noodle dishes, bean salads, grilled wild caught salmon, seafood cocktails, whole fish presentations, veggie fried rice and salsas.

Stuff it into fully-loaded baked potatoes, spring rolls and calzones.

Use whole sprigs to jazz up savory cocktails like Bloody Marys, omelets and frittatas. Swap out curly parsley for cilantro in tabouli. Concoct a cilantro-lime dressing to dial up chicken, or make a spicy pepper cilantro sauce to give a kick to lamb shanks.

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