Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Cilantroversy

It seems no herb but cilantro can provoke such strong opinions. I first witnessed this years ago, working at the Rio Grande Cafe in Bethesda. The special of the day was "Shrimp Acapulco" -- grilled shrimp served over a bed of "cilantro rice" and topped with mango salsa, if I remember correctly. I'm sure it was very thoughtfully named. Anyway, I was describing it (in more detail than what you just read -- this tactic is known as "upselling" in the restaurant world) to a middle-aged couple and their son, during a lunch shift. As soon as I said the word "cilantro," the woman shuddered, "Oh, ugh. I can't stand cilantro." What?? I had just sampled the new special earlier that morning, and I'll be damned if it weren't "out of this world" -- my favorite way to describe food to customers. Plus, I thought, cilantro makes everything better.

It turns out a lot of people hate, hate, this herb. It may just be genetics: a behavioral scientist recently took his cilantro study to the Ohio Twins Festival and found that if one identical twin hated cilantro, chances are the other twin felt the same way. Also, most cilantro-haters detect in it a soapy taste and smell, which strikes me as a genetic kind of thing -- a very scientific opinion, I know. It reminds me a little bit of the asparagus pee phenomenon; studies have shown that eating asparagus always results in an odiferous urine, but not everyone is able to smell it. I'm glad I can't, because it might ruin asparagus for me.

Anyway, cilantro. There have been a number of groups formed on Facebook dedicated to a collective detestation of this most ubiquitous of herbs. The below is a small sampling of the wall posts for the group I HATE CILANTRO, now boasting almost 2,000 members:

"We are born with something people who can tolerate cilantro don't have. It's called a soul."

"Cilantro is just plain vulgar. Its flavor lingers and repeats for at least three days. Reasturants should warn customers about every item that contains it. I HATE IT! It chould be illegal."

"Fresh coriander is an abomination.
It is surely the scent of evil, the stench of hell, the proof that the Enemy is working around us.
On his occasional meetings with the Devil around the turn of the first Millenium, it is reported that St. Julian Hospitaller could always detect the odour of fresh coriander - cilantro. It should never be consumed by human beings and restaurants should ALWAYS have a warning sign for any dishes dishes carrying this noxious weed. I certainly send my food back if they come up with pearls of culinary stupidity as a 'coriander pesto' but they only anounce it as 'pesto'."

Gentle readers, these are highlights from only Page One of the wall posts.

I'm not sure which came first, but there is also a website,, where you can read all about the evils of the herb and the people who cook with it, and order your "I HATE CILANTRO" sweatshirts, messenger bags, throw pillows, mouse pads, and beer steins. There's even a canine-sized "I HATE CILANTRO" t-shirt, for that dog of yours who becomes nauseated at the very thought.

I jest. If cilantro-hating really is a matter of genes, then I can't fault the haters. But, all this hulabaloo against an innocent herb? It's kind of hilarious. I guess I, too, have joined "hater" Facebook groups -- my favorite among them being "If you can't differentiate between your and you're, you deserve to die." But what did cilantro ever do to you? Okay, touche, what did the your/you're offenders ever do to me (besides make grading their English 101 papers extra tedious)?

Well, doggone it, I love cilantro, if you couldn't tell already. I love it so much that I take a long whiff every time I encounter it. Mmmmm! Makes everything seem so fresh! The following two recipes are cilantro-heavy, but if you happen to be a hater, you could just as well make them without the cilantro. I had my parents and two of my brothers over for dinner tonight, and served the cabbage salad as the first course and the soup as the main course, fearing the flavors of each dish were too strong to be served at the same time. Home run! Everyone loved everything (my people don't have the cilantro-hating gene, clearly). Plus, it's all pretty low-fat, and yours truly is looking to get rid of about 10 pounds.

Recipe: Peanut-Ginger Cabbage Salad
The dressing is adapted from 101Cookbooks. Serves 6 as a heavy first course.

For dressing (makes about 1.25 C):
2/3 C creamy peanut butter
1/3 C rice vinegar
1/4 C maple syrup (I was out of maple syrup, so I just used 2 T sugar)
3 T water
2 T tamari (I do not have this, so I substituted soy sauce)
1 T minced fresh ginger (or 1.5 t ground ginger)
2 cloves garlic
1.5 t toasted sesame oil (use regular sesame oil if you don't have the toasted kind)
1/4 t crushed red pepper flakes (omit these if you don't like spicy food)
1 C cilantro

For salad:
1 half of a large head of green cabbage, cut into julienne strips
2 large carrots, coarsely grated
1 red pepper, julienned
2 C broccoli florets (ends of about two broccoli)
juice of half a lime
1/4 C loosely packed mint leaves
1/4 C loosely packed cilantro

To make the dressing, grind together the first nine ingredients in the food processor or blender. Add the cilantro and pulse a few times. Add water as necessary to get a consistency you like for salad dressing. May be refrigerated for up to two days.

To make the salad, toss together all the salad ingredients. Toss with the dressing.

Addendum: Feel free to use any combination of vegetables here. Red cabbage can be substituted. Green beans would be good. A different-colored pepper. Sliced radishes, especially daikon radish. Cucumber might be a nice addition. Red onion, perhaps. Use your imagination!

Recipe: Spicy Chickpea and Tomato Stew
Inspired by Rachael Ray's Indian-Spiced Chickpea and Fire-Roasted Tomato Soup (don't hate). Serves 6.

1 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, diced
3 15-oz. cans chickpeas, or one and a half bags of dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
3 t ground cumin
1 t garam masala
1 t ground turmeric
1/2 t cayenne pepper or two chopped, seeded dried red chiles (omit if you don't like spicy food)
2 C chickenor vegetable stock
1 C water
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 C cilantro
1.25 C plain yogurt
Pita chips (optional, recipe follows)

Heat a large pot over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the garlic and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add chickpeas and spices. Reduce heat to low-medium and cook another 5 minutes. Add chicken stock and water, increase to medium, bring to a low boil, reduce heat to low-medium, and simmer about 30 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook for another 15 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Ladle soup into bowls and give each a tablespoon or so of cilantro and a dollop of yogurt. Serve with pita chips.

Pita chips: Heat oven to 300 degrees. Take four pieces of pita bread that are about to go stale. Cut each in half crosswise (so each pita becomes two full circles). Slice into fourths. Brush each piece with olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle each side with salt. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until crispy.


Sara M. said...

i would never hate on rachael ray! her shrimp puttanesca sauce is perhaps one of the most fabulous things i cook routinely. needless to say, it's out of this world.

PLUS, she introduced me to the idea of making corn pancakes to put on top of bowls of chili. speaking of which, that's a good recipe for you! a box of jiffy mix is dirt cheap...

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought I was the only person who hated cilantro. Seriously, it's terrible. I made meatballs once with what I thought was fresh parsley-- oops, no, it was actually cilantro, lurking nearby and looking green and leafy. So yeah, I say, down with cilantro.

Anonymous said...

You must be a lady-chef of the demonic variety, one of Satan's minions freshly ascended from hell to force your cilantrocentric ideals upon all of us.

DEO said...

Sara: Agreed, Rachael Ray's recipes are usually really good! But so many people hate on her (more for her personality than her food, I think), that I felt the need to write a qualifier of some sort. I know, no backbone.

Paula: There are support groups for people like you; good luck and try to avoid Tex-Mex!

Anonymous: I don't mean no harm! You poor soul, it's not your fault. You were born that way. As I said, you can make my recipes without cilantro.

Daniel said...

I've also been shocked to feel strong anti-cilantro sentiment among my less well-fed friends and acquaintances.

I've heard people claim it tastes soapy, so I suppose I can't blame them for not wanting to eat it either.

Just found your blog thanks to the 4/1/09 Sun-Times article and I'm enjoying catching up on your writing!

Casual Kitchen

DEO said...

Dan, you made my day! I didn't even know about the Sun-Times article, but I'm so pleased to get a mention! And congrats to you -- I've been admiring your blog from afar for a long time, and am thrilled you're getting the recognition you deserve!