Why some love - or hate - Coriander

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 1:05 AM Bookmark and Share
Opinions are quite varied on whether adding fresh coriander (aka cilantro) to a recipe makes or breaks the dish. Some folks simply love the stuff while others find the herb quite repulsive - often noting a metallic, soapy or otherwise unpleasant flavor (other descriptions of the repulsive taste and/or smell can be found here) a description that seems quite different from how fans describe it. So why the disparity??

Thanks to work by a few diligent and inquisitive scientists, we do know a few things about this love-hate relationship with one of my favorite herbs. Some these discoveries have been stumbled upon while working on more important issues while others come more focused and direct studies of the plant.

Coriander (aka cilantro or Chinese parsely) is the common name of the plant Coriandrum sativum, a member of the carrot family Apiaceae or Umbelliferae. The young leaves are the herb called cilantro, while the older leaves and seeds are called coriander - although the herb is commonly referred to by both names. For some interesting Coriandrum chemistry, check out the chapter on the chemical properties of the herb starting on page 190 of Chemistry of Spices, available through Google Book Search. Unfortunately the book doesn't have much info on why some find the herb so revolting...

So why the divide? According to work by folks like Charles Wysocki from the Monell Chemical Senses Center it seems there are very likely some genetic factors that contribute to the preference. This based on preliminary work comparing pairs of twins with non-twins - if its heritable, pairs of identical twins will share a preference more so than fraternal twins, with the lowest proportion of shared preferences seen between non-twin siblings.

Initially some believed the cilantrophiles among us were unable to taste or smell some particularly offensive chemical found in the plant. This is a reasonable hypothesis, and is in line with similar phenomena such as the more common example involving asparagus (although I recently learned that producing and being able to smell the offending byproduct in this case are two separate issues).

With cilantro, it turns out this notion is a bit off. There does seem to be a difference in smelling (and tasting) ability among the cilantro lovers and haters among us, but according to this essay by Josh Kurz on the NPR website, the smell some folks are missing out on is not a foul one, but that pungent lemony smell so adored by cilantro lovers. If you are among those who hate cilantro, you really might not know what you're missing!

Given the descriptions I have heard and read, there may indeed be some other more unpleasant smells that are only detectable by the unfortunate few. This could simply be because the compounds that smell so good to some are themselves the culprits, being pleasant to some and repulsive to others. The GC anecdote in Josh Kurz's article suggests otherwise, however. So the two smells/tastes are indeed caused by two different chemicals. Unfortunately the essay doesn't mention whether or not researchers Wysocki and Preti were also able to smell the unpleasant compounds.

Interestingly, this information doesn't show up on ihatecilantro.com!

So will the world be a better place for knowing all this? Probably not, but I can already imagine someone slaving away for Monsanto trying to get rid of the repulsive compounds - after all, there is a big difference between "tastes bad" and "tasteless"!

20 comments:

Posted by: Tobias | 6/28/2009 8:27 AM

I read on http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2009/03/i-hate-cilantrocoriander.html that you E-mailed some people about the taste difference being caused by genetics, did you get any interesting information from that?

As one of those people who tastes soap in coriander/cilantro, I'm betting on the genetics being the cause of the difference in taste perception.

You may wonder why people like those from ihatecilantro.com make such a big deal out of a small thing like this. Speaking from my own experience, it's just that a "soapy flavor" is kind of an understatement. Imagine ordering some nice mexican food, and then squirting half a bottle of dishwashing detergent over it, completely ruining it.. Since most restaurants often don't specifically list whether they used cilantro, this is an damn disappointing recurring experience.

I know I know, it's still a small thing, but it can really ruin your day.

Posted by: Paul | 6/29/2009 9:08 PM

Hi Tobias, :)

I did send out a couple emails, but unfortunately I never heard back from anyone.

Most publications on coriander seem to involve characterizing chemical compounds, assessing biological (e.g. antimicrobial) properties of those compounds, or assessing various methods related to the cultivation or distribution of plants. It seems there could be relevant results in the literature on the chemical activities of various components of cilantro, but unfortunately I don't have the time (or biochem. background) to wade through it all to look for them.

There doesn't seem to be that much published work on the taste/smell issue, which is surprising! So either there is plenty of room for more basic research on the genetics (along the lines Wysocki's twin study) behind the olfactory/gustatory side of the picture, or I'm just not searching through the right literature. My guess is the former, as it would seem this stuff would make the rounds in the popular science arena.

In any case, thanks for checking in! If I come across anything more I'll be sure to include it here as a comment, or update to the above post.

Posted by: Anonymous | 7/27/2009 2:41 PM

I find it unlikely that the scientists involved could smell the offending compound, but I only base this on personal experience.

For instance, my girlfriend and I go out to eat often, and it has been the case quite many times that while I can tell even the slightest amount of cilantro is in a dish, she cannot. Initially, she would not believe me and we would go to the chef for the answer. Now, she just accepts after having about an 0-5 record on challenges.

If she were able to taste both, and the good would need to be REALLY good and more importantly STRONG, why wouldn't she be able to identify small amounts of cilantro just as easily if not more so than I?

I think those who dislike cilantro just drew the short stick on what we got to smell and what we didn't here. I would also like to know more about the chemicals themselves. Is, or was there ever, a evolutionary reason for/against either? Why such a distinct separation on such a fine line for this? It seems most people are, very explicitly, one or the other.

Posted by: Paul | 7/27/2009 4:23 PM

Hi Anon,

"Is, or was there ever, a evolutionary reason for/against either?"

"Reason"? Who knows. Explanation? Probably at least a few, which could make for nice, testable hypothesis if done right. ;)

I can't answer this with any certainty, but one possible explanation for why we see both "traits" is that there is a strong genetic component to being one way or the other, and that it can take a really, really long time for such neutral or nearly-neutral traits to either disappear or "take over" a population (i.e. assuming this doesn't significantly impact reproduction).

So it that sense, it may be a bit like having an attached earlobe or something - some have it, some don't.

The problem there, is that it doesn't seem to occur in families the way a simple Mendelian traits do. So it's at best a combination of genetic factors and/or some other environmental factors (e.g. a glitch during early development) that lead one to taste coriander one way or the other.

Again, that's all speculative, so take it with a grain of salt! ;)

"Why such a distinct separation on such a fine line for this? It seems most people are, very explicitly, one or the other."

Again, if it's a failure of some particular developmental pathway or something, you could see such a dichotomous pattern, but again - as far as I can tell these aren't questions we have answers to yet.

Thanks for the questions :)

Posted by: GG | 3/03/2010 9:19 AM

It's finally growing on me! Black olives on the other hand are still the enemy.

Posted by: Ben | 4/17/2010 3:35 PM

@GG: Are you saying you are getting used to the herb?
I have tried for a long time to get used to it but the taste perception has not changed one little bit. I did not think it was possible.

That said I do like olives and I can eat anything but coriander.

Posted by: Anonymous | 5/09/2011 3:25 AM

Death to coriander!

Posted by: Anonymous | 6/25/2011 7:56 AM

My son and I are both physically sick if we taste coriander in food. We are absolutely repulsed by the stuf. LOL!

Posted by: Anonymous | 7/31/2011 5:22 AM

hate hate hate it its really poison

Posted by: Anonymous | 8/07/2011 9:23 AM

I have an automatic gag reflex as soon as it hits my tasebuds. My sister however loves the stuff?

Posted by: Anonymous | 9/14/2011 10:05 AM

Revolting, evil herb!!

Posted by: Anonymous | 9/19/2011 7:10 AM

It can't be completely genetic as both my husband and I loathe coriander with a passion and are often disappointed when eating out as it is never listed on the menu. But we have gone to both of our families and they've all said that they love, like, or don't mind it. We both feel sick at the first taste of it!

Posted by: Anonymous | 10/13/2011 1:58 AM

it makes my mouth feel like it is turning inside out!

Posted by: Anonymous | 1/27/2012 3:23 PM

When I went to Thailand I couldn't understand why the food always tasted soapy until I finally figured it out. Now it happens regularly back home in NZ!
However I seem to be ok with coriander seeds. Is there some chemical in the leaves that isn't in seeds?

Posted by: Anonymous | 7/30/2012 2:01 PM

I think coriander seeds and leaves are chemically different. I like seeds while I hate leaves.

First time I tasted cilantro at the age of 5. I cried out there is dead insect in my plate. For me it smell like an insect (I don't know the name of the insect but that is found commonly in India). Cilantro is the foulest smell I ever know.

My friends and family members think my aversion to cilantro is very abnormal.

Posted by: Anonymous | 8/11/2012 2:49 AM

It's not abnormal to hate coriander, both my wife and I detest it. Whenever we we go out to eat, we always ask if coriander has been added or is used as a garnish. We were cought out once when it was added to a risoto in an Italian restaurant. I don't think it is hereditory as both my kids like the dreadful stuff.

Posted by: Paul D | 8/30/2013 10:50 AM

Anon, please don't think of yourself as abnormal. Any Indian restaurant here in England will tell you that requests for no coriander leaf are not uncommon.

I usually ask "No dhania", the Indian word for coriander/cilantro, the reason being I prefer my food not tasting as if it's been boiled in Fairy Liquid, served with a sauce of metal polish and a garnish of burnt hair. Coriander leaf is REPULSIVE.

Posted by: James Diable | 11/30/2013 10:07 AM

I love coriander, it has a beautiful citric hereby spice taste, but many years ago I bought it and all I could taste was soap, and this taste has comeback once or twice since, so I have seen coriander in both lights. So what, I wonder was it that made me tatste completely different flavours??

Posted by: Anonymous | 1/19/2014 4:39 PM

Hi, I am one of the haters. But I am going to Vietnam this summer and I am thinking of trying to find out if it is possible to turn into a lover. Do you know if it is possible to fall in love with the taste of coriander when you really do not like it?

Posted by: Puja Shaha | 3/02/2014 2:09 AM

Xawaash Spice

The Timeless Taste of Coriander :
Cultures all over the world have incorporated coriander into a wide range of dishes. Coriander grows wild throughout southern Europe and the Near East. Archaeological findings indicate that coriander was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians. British settlers carried it across the Atlantic, and it was one of the first spices they cultivated in the New World.
Seeds, Roots, Leaves
Every part of coriander has use as a seasoning. You know the parsley-like leaves as cilantro, which give their characteristic taste to fresh salsa. They are best used fresh and can be grown in pots or picked up in many grocery stores and ethnic markets.
The strong-flavored roots are used in Asian dishes. They are often included in soups and in commercially made curry pastes. They are elusive in the US, but sometimes found in Asian markets.
The round seeds, commonly sold as coriander in the US, are common in pickles and marinades. They can be added whole, crushed or powdered to add flavor to dishes. The taste depends on the preparation and what other flavoring ingredients are used with them. Coriander seeds complement other flavors well, adding an earthy note to curries and emphasizing the bright acidity of citrus. These keep in your pantry for about a year and are part of many seasoning blends from U Simply Season.
The Backbone of Many a Custom Spice Blend
It’s unusual to see coriander acting as the star of a dish. But, it’s an integral part of seasoning mixes in spices from around the world. It plays a part in exotic Five Spice blends, and adds musky character to Tunisia’s Tabil. And, no matter what cuisine’s party it is the life of, curry just wouldn’t be the same without coriander. Here are U Simply Season, you will find it in the palettes of a wealth of seasoning blends .

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website: www.usimplyseason.com
Call: 888-243-7770
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Amboseli Foods
569 South 600 West #102
Salt Lake City, UT 84101

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