AndyTalk: What Bedbugs and Stinky Feet Have to Do With Your Food -- The Awful Truth About Cilantro
When I think about cilantro, I'm reminded of the way my dog fights when we try to get him to take a pill. It's clear that he does not want to swallow, and for many, cilantro is much like that bitter pill. Cilantro and its distinct flavor are to food (and food blogs) what abortion, immigration, and gun control are to a presidential election. Anything that controversial does not belong in food (not in mine, at least, and when she lived, cilantro-hating Julia Child's).
For those of us who have a gag reflex to cilantro, there's no middle ground. There's even a website -- IHateCilantro.com -- where you can vent and buy anti-cilantro clothing.
Epazote -- an herb used in Mexican cooking
There are studies that suggest that aversion to cilantro is genetic; maybe that's why I can't offer an ingredient substitute. I can suggest equally green epazote as an upgrade. Nothing tastes quite like cilantro -- except soap and bedbugs. The only practical solution to the cilantro problem is to serve cilantro in a bowl, set out for people to use or avoid as they choose, like red pepper flakes, Parmesan cheese, or snuff. In HR-speak this offers a "reasonable accommodation" for all concerned.
In a 2010 article in the New York Times, food-science maven Harold McGee set out the facts about cilantro (also called coriander):
The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food notes that the word "coriander" is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug, that cilantro aroma "has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes" . . . Modern cilantrophobes tend to describe the offending flavor as soapy rather than buggy . . . Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances . . . called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects.
McGee's references bring to mind the scene in Empire of the Sun, in which the character played by a young Christian Bale counted the weevils in his food and then ate them with relish. Mmm, protein. I know that many people eat cilantro with that kind of vigor, for which I am very thankful. The more they eat, the less cilantro there is in the world. With regard to the soapy flavor, I think that Mr. McGee does a bit of a disservice to many soaps. Dial, for example, has a distinctly sweet flavor if some happens to get in your mouth.
Still, there is really no accounting for taste. I like blue cheese; the bluer the better. For many, the aroma precludes any attempt at a taste. It turns out that a bacterium by the name "brevibacterium linens" helps cheeses look blue and taste good. It's also the bacteria that causes foot odor. In other words stinky cheese and stinky feet have much in common. This knowledge does not diminish my enjoyment of a good fromage bleu.
I can always smile after eating blue cheese. I can also offer a recipe for Blue Cheese Cheesecake. Who would eat a cilantro cheesecake? It would stick in the teeth as well as the craw.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.
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