Cilantro is an enigma. It’s by far one of mankind’s most popular herbs. It is eaten in generous quantities all across the globe. But for many, a single leaf can ruin their day.
For cilantro lovers, this herb is more than a condiment—it’s an essential ingredient. Without cilantro, salsa would just be chopped tomatoes. Vietnamese pho would just be noodle soup. Cilantro plays a key role in several culinary cultures: Mexican, Indian, Caribbean, and Thai, just to name a few
But to millions, cilantro is downright disgusting. It’s not merely an issue of fussiness, but a passionate revulsion that drives their hatred of this plant. Whereas most people experience a flavor that resembles citrus and celery, the cilantro averse get hit with a foul smell and can taste only bleach and bitterness. The Facebook page, I HATE CILANTRO, has a single message, but has still earned over 17,000 likes.
A 2012 study suggests that the reason for this dramatic difference in cilantro taste perception may be genetic. Researchers point to variants in olfactory receptors in those with European ancestry. Another study from the journal Flavor found that cilantro aversion isn’t confined to race. A survey revealed that 21 percent of East Asians, 17 percent of Caucasians, 14 percent of Africans, 7 percent of South Asians, 4 percent of Hispanics, and 3 percent of Middle Eastern subjects said cilantro tastes awful.
Cilantro has a very long history of use. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese were all big fans of this plant for both food and medicine. Cilantro seeds (known as coriander) were found in Egyptian tombs. This herb is mentioned in the Bible and in Sanskrit texts of ancient India. Cilantro was one of the first Old World herbs to come to the Americas, and use caught on quickly. Today, it is grown virtually everywhere around the world.
For such a widely popular plant, cilantro has picked up some dubious distinctions. The botanical name, coriandrum, comes from the Greek word, “koris,” meaning bugs. Legend has it that the ancients thought the unripe seed smelled of bedbugs. Other names such as bugbane and bug dill also refer to this characteristic.
Despite the insect reputation, coriander has long been used to mask bad smells. The seed is especially rich in essential oils that even those repulsed by the leaf may enjoy. Mediaeval Romans used coriander seeds to hide the stink of rotting meat, and it has been used in perfumery since the Ancient Greeks. Cilantro tea is a Chinese remedy for bad breath.
Before there was cheap and plentiful sugar, coriander helped the medicine go down. Old herbal texts often include coriander in formulas to disguise the flavor of nauseating herbs, and to make laxative herbs easier on the gut. The flavor is mild, but pleasant and a little sweet, and is often used to color the background in a variety of food and drink.
Cilantro as Medicine
Like most culinary herbs, cilantro stimulates the appetite and helps with digestion. But it is also used for allergies, asthma, sore throat, burns, urinary tract infections, and more.
Both the leaf and seed are often paired with beans not only for taste, but to prevent bloating and gas. This herb can also be used for more severe digestive problems as well. A strong cilantro tea is used for vomiting, hiccoughs, and headaches caused by nausea.
For hundreds of years, Europeans have used coriander to treat diabetes symptoms, and studies from the School of Life Science in India help support this idea. More preliminary research from India shows that coriander may also help lower triglyceride levels. Researchers found that coriander seeds increased bile production in rats, resulting in an increase in HDL (good) cholesterol and decreasing the bad (LDL).
Cilantro has over 20 different chemicals with antibacterial properties. Other chemicals found in the plant act as a fungicide. Research from Brazil in 2010 found that coriander essential oil had “considerable inhibitory capacity against” microbes.
Cilantro is rich in antioxidants, which helps to guard against disease and aging. In India, coriander is used as an anti-inflammatory. Several ancient herbalists considered it an aphrodisiac. Coriander is still used to calm an anxious mind, but herbalist Maude Grieve warned that “if used too freely the seeds become narcotic.”
A Purifying Herb
It’s curious that cilantro haters associate the leaves with a soap-like taste. Despite a recent episode of tainted cilantro crops from Mexico, the herb has a reputation for purification. Coriander essential oil is often added to soaps, lotions, and cleaning products.
Over the last few decades, researchers have discovered that cilantro can help rid the body of heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and aluminum. Health practitioners usually combine cilantro with the algae chlorella to better facilitate the metal removal process.
Researchers in Mexico are considering a way to use cilantro’s metal-removing ability as a cheap water filter for agriculture. The hope is that the plant can clean contaminated water before it feeds food crops.
Fun Cilantro Facts
Cilantro is sometimes called Chinese parsley. Like parsley, cilantro is a member of the carrot family. While most cultures only consume the leaves and seeds, the Chinese eat the cilantro roots too.
According to Chinese folklore, expectant mothers who ate coriander seeds would have smarter children.
If you love the cilantro taste, try a pesto. Cilantro pesto may predate the basil variety.
Whereas the cilantro leaf is mostly used fresh, the coriander seed is used dry. Drying is said to make its flavor even stronger. This aromatic seed is an essential ingredient in curry powder and pickling spice, and is often used to flavor liquors, such as gin.
Cilantro has a unique flavor, but the herb culantro (Eryngium foetidum) provides a close copy. Culantro is often used as a cilantro substitute, but its flavor is more intense. The chemistry of both plants is very similar.