I didn’t know that cilantro and I had a problem until I was 14 years old. A few months after my family moved from the east coast to California, I was having dinner with a friend and her parents brought in Mexican food. I bit into my first Los Angeles taco, covered in a mysterious mound of green leaves, and realized that something was very wrong.
The moment the leaves hit my tongue, a strong, indescribable, and unbearable flavor overwhelmed my taste buds. Everyone else happily munched on their tacos while I ran to the bathroom and spit mine out. I had no idea what had happened, and neither did my friend or her parents. Their food had tasted fine to them.
“What was that horrible green stuff then?” I asked my friend.
“It’s just cilantro,” she said.
I didn’t understand how this cilantro leaf thing had made my mouth explode with unhappiness the way that it did. Over the next couple of years, I had several more unpleasant brushes with cilantro, those innocuous little green leaves always popping up where I least expected them. Sometimes they were sprinkled over curry or mixed into a burrito. They even showed up in Thai food. The more adventurously I ate, the more often I had encounters with my new nemesis: cilantro.
No one seemed to sympathize with my plight. My family and friends didn’t understand why sometimes I couldn’t eat the food I ordered, or why I suddenly began to make a big deal at restaurants, grilling the wait staff about whether or not cilantro was going to appear on my food. I was forced to send back orders that showed up with cilantro despite my request not to include it. “No cilantro” became a phrase I used often. I couldn’t understand how this herb could taste so unbelievably bad to me but be fine with the rest of the world.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I met a fellow cilantro-hater.
“I can’t eat cilantro,” my friend said one day as we were walking to the dining hall.
I almost fell over with excitement. “Oh my god! I’ve never met anyone else who can’t eat cilantro!”
“Yeah. It tastes like soap,” she said.
She was right! I’d never had words to describe that sharp, tangy, disgusting taste before. She informed me that there was actually a small segment of the population that couldn’t eat cilantro. It had something to do with genetics and taste buds. For the first time, I felt like my cilantro-aversion wasn’t irrational or crazy. There were others out there like me!
I did some research into the cilantro tastebud theory and found a few websites devoted to the hatred of cilantro. I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me to look into it before. I guess I just assumed that my dislike cilantro was some kind of quirk or character flaw, but it actually had a scientific explanation.
I found out that cilantro is another word for coriander, an herb commonly used in Mexican, Asian, and Indian cuisines, as I’d had the misfortune of discovering on my own. According to the 2010 New York Times article, “Cilantro Haters: It’s Not Your Fault,” studies have shown that some people may be genetically predisposed to disliking cilantro. They thought it had something to do with missing memory patterns, causing certain people to reject the culturally unfamiliar taste of cilantro as a potential threat to their survival. One survey showed that cilantro aversion was most common in people with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, which I have.
New research, however, has shown that cilantro haters share a group of olfactory-receptor genes called OR6A2. They pick up on the smell of aldehyde chemicals, which can be found in both cilantro and soap. It affects somewhere between 4-14% of the population.
It appears that I now actually have an answer to why I can’t stand the taste cilantro, but I’ve been forced to try to explain this misunderstood phenomenon to many people over the years. While there seem to be degrees of cilantro-aversion—for example, my best friend doesn’t like it but can still stand to eat it if it appears on her food—I’m on the extreme side. I can taste the telltale sharp, soap-like substance a mile away, and it ruins any food that it comes into contact with. This isn’t to yuck your yum—if you love the green herb, then go for it! But as for me, I just can’t handle it.
My hatred of cilantro has also helped me realize how much stigma there is around food aversions and allergies in general. My sister, for instance, often feels embarrassed about her nut allergy. It’s the kind of official, problematic allergy that should illicit concern and understanding, but she often feels judged (like I do) for having to make a big deal about ensuring that her food doesn’t come with any unmentioned nut products and sending it back if it does.
After years of trial and error, I’m mostly able to predict and work around any potential encounters with cilantro. Sometimes it still shows up in unexpected dishes or appears in food despite my requests not to include it. In those cases, I have to be somewhat high-maintenance and send the dish back. I try not to be too hard on myself, knowing that it’s not my fault. It might not be an official allergy, but it is still a legitimate problem.
But even though cilantro has ruined many a taco for me, it’s also brought great people into my life. You’d be surprised just how many friendships came from this simple exchange: “You hate cilantro? I hate it too!”
True Life: I’m A Cilantrophobe
And here’s Chipotle’s secret guac recipe!
[Featured image via iStock]