Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cilantro Hate

via Balloon Juice

One of the more popular food topics on the internets is how much people love/hate cilantro. It seems that people who love it are always surprised to find that there are large numbers of people out there who absolutely despise it, and then someone always brings up that they heard somewhere that it's something genetic that causes the huge disparity and then everyone goes "oh" and moves on. What's the real story? According to Harold McGhee the genetic angle is not well explored, and it may be a bit more straightforward:
Modern cilantrophobes tend to describe the offending flavor as soapy rather than buggy. I don’t hate cilantro, but it does sometimes remind me of hand lotion. Each of these associations turns out to make good chemical sense.

Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects.

Soaps are made by fragmenting fat molecules with strongly alkaline lye or its equivalent, and aldehydes are a byproduct of this process, as they are when oxygen in the air attacks the fats and oils in cosmetics. And many bugs make strong-smelling, aldehyde-rich body fluids to attract or repel other creatures.

The published studies of cilantro aroma describe individual aldehydes as having both cilantrolike and soapy qualities. Several flavor chemists told me in e-mail messages that they smell a soapy note in the whole herb as well, but still find its aroma fresh and pleasant.

I like cilantro quite a bit, but I can see where people are coming from with the soap flavor assertions... it just doesn't bother me. Though the subsequent explanation for why it would bother some more than others, doesn't really fit my experience and seems pretty hand wavy. I doubt I had really any exposure as a child to cilantro (I'm pretty sure my mother wouldn't even know what it is), so I'm not sure where I would develop enough of a familiarity with the flavor to not be bothered by the soap smell.