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Coriander’s identity crisis

You may know the herb as coriander, but it's more likely you know it as cilantro.

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You may know the herb as coriander, but it’s more likely you know it as cilantro. You may consider it essential for soups, salads and dips, or you may consider it inedible. Cilantro is one of those herbs with advocates and detractors, and it sometimes sparks lively debate.

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There is even disagreement about what the plant should be called. North Americans call it by its Spanish name, cilantro, but it is called coriander just about everywhere else. To complicate matters, cilantro is North Americans’ word for the plant’s leaves, but its nutty seeds are often used as a baking ingredient, and we call that powdered spice coriander.

The taste of cilantro depends on the person doing the tasting. Most people describe the leaves as fresh and fruity, but others find the flavour perfectly awful. “Like soap or hand lotion” is one of the more polite descriptions. Chef Julia Child stood tall among cilantro detractors. She described the flavour and smell of cilantro as “revolting,” and advised anyone finding cilantro in a salad to “throw it on the floor where it belongs.” An internet search will reveal more descriptions from cilantro-haters (some unsuitable for a family newspaper), demonstrating once again how flavours can trigger powerful emotions.

I am among those with cilantro aversion, which sometimes puzzles friends who love the stuff. How common is cilantro aversion? That depends on where you ask the question. As many as 21 percent of North Americans say cilantro tastes awful. But if you ask the same question in Mexico, only about 5 percent agree, and cilantro is widely used in Mexican cooking. In fact, cilantro is sometimes called Mexican parsley.

Food chemists say that cilantro’s taste is produced by chemical compounds called aldehydes. Those of us who are cilantro-adverse are highly sensitive to aldehydes, which are often described as tasting “soapy.” We are also less sensitive to cilantro compounds most people taste as “fruity.” That research does reassure me that I may not just be finicky. But taste preferences often change with passing years, and foods we couldn’t tolerate as children may become enjoyable later in life.

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Is it too late for me to learn to enjoy cilantro?

I recently discovered an article by food and science writer Harold McGee (who, as it happens, describes himself as disliking cilantro). Mr. McGee was impressed by Japanese researchers’ discovery that aldehydes are converted into substances that do not taste like soap or hand lotion when cilantro leaves are crushed, and he recommended trying cilantro pesto (which, you probably know, is crushed herbs blended with garlic and olive oil) as a pasta topping. I admit to being skeptical, but I sometimes see fresh cilantro in grocery stores and I will give cilantro pesto a try. If it doesn’t work, I know from experience that cilantro composts very well.

In other garden news, the 2020 annual general meeting of Garden Stratford (a.k.a. Stratford and District Horticultural Society) will be a virtual “Zoom” gathering beginning with a short business meeting to install the society’s 2021 board of directors. We will then welcome Dr. A. Mok of the London Orchid Society, whose Introduction To Orchids presentation should be very helpful for anyone hoping to enjoy those wonderful plants, especially in the darker winter months ahead.

The annual general meeting is restricted to current Garden Stratford members, so if you are a 2020 member, please check your email for a message with easy-to-follow instructions of how to register for the meeting.

This could also be a very good time to purchase a 2021 membership. The easiest way to buy memberships is to call membership co-ordinator Mary Hoffman at 519-271-2246 (email: marihoffman@cyg.net). A Garden Stratford membership would also be a fine gift for gardeners in your life. Members receive advance notice and preferred access to 2021 virtual meetings, garden chats and workshops, plus generous discounts at many Stratford-area garden businesses. Contact Mary Hoffman for further information about gift memberships, which are also available at Flowers On York or Stratford Blooms, great places to enjoy winter flowers and greenery.

Mr. McGee’s New York Times article of April 13, 2010, is fine reading, and for entertaining exchanges don’t miss the 527 pro and con cilantro comments his article attracted. For the link, email Doug Reberg at reberg@mac.com.

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