The Real Reason Why Cilantro Tastes Like Soap
If you think cilantro (coriander) tastes bad (like soap or bugs), then you are part of the 20% of the population that is genetically offended by the herb. Yes, genetics. People who report that "cilantro tastes bad" have a variation of olfactory-receptor genes that allows them to detect aldehydes—a compound found in cilantro that is also a by-product of soap and part of the chemical makeup of fluids sprayed by some bugs. This is why cilantrophobes say that cilantro tastes like soap or stink bugs.
So Why Do Aldehydes Taste Like Soap to Some People?
The key aroma components in cilantro consist of various aldehydes, in particular (E)-2-alkenals and n-aldehydes. In a study conducted by genomics company 23andMe, scientists discovered that a reception gene identified as OR6A2, which resides on chromosome 11, is responsible for binding the various aldehyde components to its receptors. In other words, people with the OR6A2 receptor gene are able to detect aldehydes, and therefore detect what is described as a "soapy odor," while those without this receptor cannot detect the soapy taste.
Interestingly, people with European or Caucasian ancestry are more likely to hate cilantro because they are genetically predisposed to detecting aldehydes. This explains why cilantro or coriander doesn't make much of an appearance in Western cuisine.
Cilantro Likes and Dislikes by Ancestry
All of Europe
Hating Cilantro Is Not a Recent Phenomenon
Julia Childs famously disliked cilantro and stated in an interview that she would "pick [cilantro] out and throw it on the floor" if she saw it in her food. More recently, internet groups and blogs have formed for people to share their aversion to this herb and create a sense of solidarity—there is an "I Hate Cilantro" Facebook group and an "I Hate Cilantro" blog.
However, cilantro's bad reputation dates back to the 16th and 17th century. In 1597, John Gerard, an English botanist and herbalist, described the cilantro in his journals as the "very stinking herbe" with "leaves of venomous quality." Around the same time in France, scientist Olivier de Serres mockingly wrote in his garden journal that one should include the cilantro because "its leaves, rubbed between the hands, smell like stink bugs, a thing enhancing the good scent of the other herbs."
Interestingly, it wasn't just genetics that lead to this smear campaign against cilantro in the 17th century. Historians have found many records of notable people damning the herb because of its etymology. The word for cilantro in many European languages is "coriander," which stems from the Greek word "koros," meaning "bug." Perhaps, those who were not genetically predisposed to detecting a foul taste in cilantro were still turned off by the name. A quote from William Robinson's 1885 book on vegetables is proof that cilantro was not culturally accepted in European cuisine: "Some writers say the leaves are used for seasoning, but this statement seems odd, as all the green parts of the plant exhale a very strong odor of the wood-bug, whence the Greek name of the plant."
Can You Stop Hating Cilantro?
A Japanese study claims that crushing cilantro allows the aldehydes to gradually convert into another substance, therefore removing the aroma of "soap." But can you learn to love fresh cilantro without changing its chemical structure?
Dr. Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist from Northwestern University, says that the brain can be trained to find pleasant associations with the aroma of cilantro. A cilantrophobe himself, Dr. Gottfried explains that when we taste food, the brain searches for a past experience associated with the taste and smell of that particular food. If the flavor of cilantro isn't associated with good food but rather lotion or soaps, then the brain immediately sends a signal for you to reject it—this is a primal instinct that helped our ancestors eliminate bad foods.
The brain can update new experiences and associations, and change the way we perceive a certain type of food. The more Dr. Jay ate cilantro, the more he began to like it. He now enjoys it because his brain associates cilantro with good food and the fun time he experiences when eating with friends and family. His brain no longer senses cilantro as a threat, and thus readjusted to accept the taste.
What Does Cilantro Actually Taste Like?
Because taste and perception vary from person to person, there is no definitive answer. However, the people who find cilantro pleasant-tasting would describe it as tasting fresh and citrus-y with a mild spicy flavor similar to parsley.
Are Coriander and Cilantro the Same Thing?
Yes and no. They both come from the same plant. Coriander refers to the seed, and cilantro refers to the leaves. This is how it is understood in North America. Abroad, the stem and the leaves are called coriander, and the seeds are called coriander seeds.
Do Coriander and Cilantro Taste Different?
Coriander is used as a spice, often times in soups and curries. It is described as having a warm, spicy, and nutty flavor. Cilantro is used in salads, tacos, and salsas and tastes fresh and citrus-y to some but soapy to others. They cannot be used interchangeably because they have very different flavor profiles, so substituting cilantro for coriander or vice versa is not recommended.