Food & Drink

Hate cilantro? Try holding your nose

Pity the chef trying to accommodate the complex dietary needs of customers. This one is gluten-free, that one can’t eat dairy. Another is allergic to tree nuts, and still another won’t eat cilantro.

Wait. What?

Cilantro? The savory herb that gives so much of Mexican and Tex-Mex food its distinctive flavor?

I had never heard of such a thing. So I called a self-described cilantro hater. For people like her, eating foods that contain the herb is like gnawing on a bar of soap.

“I recently had a long chat with a waiter about an appetizer and he assured me there was no cilantro in it,” she said. “Guess what? The dish arrived polluted with a liberal sprinkling – I suppose for decoration.”

The woman in question isn’t a picky eater, and she loves Mexican food. The reason she can’t stand cilantro may be in her genes.

Several years ago, Charles J. Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia asked identical and fraternal twins attending the annual Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, whether they liked cilantro. Wysocki reasoned that if preference was genetically based, there should be a stronger correlation in the identical twins, since they share 100 percent of their genetic makeup, than in the fraternal twins, who share only 50 percent. (“Fraternal twins are siblings who just happen to be born at the same time,” Wysocki explained.)

And, indeed, that’s exactly what he found.

Further research has identified two regions of the genome that may be responsible for this preference.

What’s most interesting about Wysocki’s work, though, is that he found it’s not the taste of cilantro that puts people off, it’s the smell. To prove this, Wysocki plugged the noses of cilantro haters and gave them leaves to eat. One said it was like chewing on grass, but when the nose plug was removed he exclaimed, “There’s that evil smell!”

Many components make up the aroma of cilantro, including the soaplike smell that cilantrophobes often complain about. Those who enjoy cilantro are better able to detect the pleasant components than the unpleasant ones.

Whatever the reason, cilantro can be hard to avoid. It’s popular in both Latin American and Asian cooking.

“We get plenty of questions about whether dishes contain cilantro or whether it can be left out of them,” said Zachary Garza, chef de cuisine of The Frutería, in San Antonio. “I do what I can to accommodate them.”

If someone asks for cilantro-free guacamole, he can quickly mash up some fresh avocado. It’s not the same product, but it’s something he said he’s proud to serve. It’s when they ask for cilantro-free guacamole with all the trimmings – tomato, onion, peppers, etc. – that it becomes an issue.

“To do that I’d have to take 10 minutes to make one bowl for one customer,” he said. “And that’s going to back up the line and affect other customers.”