I Heart Cilantro.

Black licorice, country music, blue cheese, skinny jeans, Trump…and Cilantro.

What do the things on this list have in common? They’re polarizing. These are things that we tend to either really love, or absolutely hate. And Cilantro fits right in, since it is one of the most hotly contested herbs in the history of herbs. People either love it, or are repulsed by it. There seems to be no middle ground.

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But unlike Trump or skinny jeans, your feelings about cilantro may be out of your control. They might be, at least partially, dictated by your genes.

To me, cilantro is The Best! It makes every meal better, lighter, more interesting. But for many people, including Julia Child, famously, and my husband, not-so-famously, it is The Worst. They hate it. Like, spit it out hate it. I’m sure you’ve read about this phenomenon…

A large cilantro plant growing outside, showing that the tops are starting to bolt.
This cilantro is growing outside where the temps get hot and it is super quick to bolt.

Various researchers since the early 2000’s have started to show that there is a genetic component to cilantro-hate.

Charles Wysocki, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, surveyed hundreds of twins and found that about 80% of identical twins shared the same preference or dislike of the taste, while only about 40% of fraternal twins agreed. This suggested a genetic factor.

Nicholas Eriksson then headed up a study which included 14,604 participants and confirmed, indeed, that there is a genetic component to cilantro-dislike. Their paper, from 2012, proposed that “a cluster of olfactory receptor genes, perhaps OR6A2, may be the olfactory receptor that contributes to the detection of a soapy smell from cilantro in European populations.”

Apparently, this gene OR6A2 (olfactory receptor 6A2) has a higher than normal ability to bind to the aldehydes that give cilantro its specific soapy smell. So, if a person has this gene, the cells in their nose pick up the yucky part of cilantro more strongly than my nose cells do.

Wysocki then published a paper in 2012 which explored some more variations in gene expression and certain tastes like bitter, basil, ethanol, cilantro and cinnamon. This paper, published in the journal Chemical Sense, described three other variants in genesTRPA1GNAT3, and TAS2R50 that affect how we perceive the taste of cilantro, specifically, and which can contribute to a sense of cilantro-dislike. These genes are responsible for cilantro tasting bitter or pungent.

It turns out that somewhere between 3-21% of people hate cilantro. Not through any fault of their own. Not cilantro prejudice, nor pre-conceived cilantro notions, nor herbal narrow-mindedness. But simply because their tastebuds (and, smellbuds, actually) are more sensitive to the soapy, dirty, bug-gy tastes that are buried deep within the cilantro taste and smell profile for the rest of us.

I’ll admit I’m a little late to this party. All of the exciting bits of the research seem to have gone on before 2012. And since then, I don’t believe they’ve made a lot of gains in this very important field of olfactory science. As far as I know, there is no gene therapy being studied to urgently correct the genes of those who dislike cilantro. I am sorry to say.

So what do we do with you cilantro-haters? Other than encourage you to express yourselves with t-shirts, blogs, Facebook pages and endless haikus devoted to your loathing?

In an interview with Larry King in 2002, Julia Child said if she encountered cilantro on a dish she “would pick it out and throw it on the floor”. That seems very sensible, and there are certainly some other things on that polarizing list above that I would throw on the floor if given the chance.

An indoor growing cilantro plant, looking more in its prime.
Grown indoors, where the days don’t get as hot, cilantro may last for several weeks before bolting.

But, instead of throwing it on the floor, you could try crushing it up (like in a pesto) which is supposed to help those aldehydes break up and become less offensive (per an oft-quoted Japanese study). Or you could try to expose yourself to the smell and taste more often, in hopes that with exposure, it will no longer have a negative connotation for your strong and sensitive olfactory receptors. Or you could try imagining Trump, wearing skinny jeans and holding a sprig of cilantro, which might work as some sort of shock-therapy, and then you might even find out that you like cilantro after all.

In turn, I will try to not douse my meal in cilantro – at least not while sitting up-wind of my husband for fear that the smell of my deliciousness turns him off to the whole meal in it’s entirety. It seems only fair.

A large ornate plate, shot from overhead, with a heaping plate of vegetarian cauliflower tikka masala, and a bit of cilantro placed on top.
Before eating this, I actually dumped like two more handfuls of cilantro on top
An extreme close up of the vegetarian cauliflower tikka masala.
Mmmmmasala.

Since this blog is also about gardening indoors, I feel I have to mention that cilantro is very easy to grow in the Tub Garden. It tends to bolt pretty quickly in the hot summer when planted outside, and seems to last much longer in the indoor garden where the temps don’t get so high.

I always look for a “slow-bolting” variety to seed. I also try to plant them in succession so that once the plant does bolt, I can just get rid of it and make room for a new one, thereby always having a constant cilantro crop. For my cilantro-loving taste buds.

Lastly, my favorite vehicle to get cilantro on to these cilantro-loving taste buds is this delicious tikka masala recipe, adapted from Cook’s Illustrated. It is one of our family favorites that we make at least every other week. Back when we were meat eaters, we made it with chicken. Now, as vegetarians we make it with cauliflower, and it still tastes amazing. The sauce is rich and complex…and, of course, tastes even better with a healthy handful, or two, of fresh chopped cilantro plopped right on top. But, I have heard it is also delicious and satisfying without the cilantro too. I suppose…

An ornate plate with a heaping portion of vegetarian cauliflower tikka masala, and cilantro garnish, served over rice.
An ornate plate with a heaping portion of vegetarian cauliflower tikka masala, and cilantro garnish, served over rice.

Cauliflower Tikka Masala. (To be doused in cilantro, or not, your choice)

Course: DinnerCuisine: VegetarianDifficulty: Easy
Servings

4

servings
Prep time

30

minutes
Cooking time

30

minutes

This meal is easy enough for weeknights, and is so delicious and flavorful, it makes the whole house smell wonderful while it’s simmering.

Ingredients

  • To prepare the Cauliflower
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin

  • 1 tsp. ground coriander

  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper

  • 1 Tbsp salt

  • 1 head of large cauliflower, cut into small pieces, keeping mostly the florets

  • 2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil, then another 2 Tbsp for browning, later

  • 2 -4 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger , or more to taste

  • To prepare the sauce
  • 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil

  • 1 medium onion, diced

  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced

  • 2 tsp grated fresh ginger

  • 1-2 – 1 fresh serrano chile, minced (seeds removed). Start with 1/2 chile and work your way up!

  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste

  • 1 Tbsp. garam masala

  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

  • 2 tsp. sugar

  • 1 tsp. salt

  • 2 cup heavy cream

  • 1⁄4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves. Or more, way more. Let’s just say, “To taste”.

Directions

  • To prepare the cauliflower
  • Initially, we used chicken for this, then we tried several “fake” chicken products like Quorn which also do work very nicely. But now, most nights, we just use cauliflower. Cut it up into nice bite-size pieces, working with mostly just the florets.
  • In a large bowl, combine the cumin, coriander, cayenne, and salt and mix it well. Add the yogurt, oil, garlic, and ginger and mix again. Finally, add the cauliflower and mix until all sides of all pieces are coated thoroughly. Refrigerate for 15-30 minutes.
  • For the sauce
  • Meanwhile, heat 2 Tbsp of the oil in large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until just golden brown. Add the garlic, ginger, chile, tomato paste, and garam masala all in one heap and stir vigorously over medium heat still, until it just starts to smell fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, sugar, and salt and allow it to boil, then reduce the heat to low and cover. Let this simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring every now and then.
  • While the sauce is simmering, heat 2 Tbsp oil on medium-high to high heat in a large skillet. Add the cauliflower-yogurt mixture and brown the cauliflower on all sides. About 5-7 minutes for each side. The cauliflower should be browned and almost crispy on the outside, not too wilted.
  • Put it all together
  • Add the cauliflower mixture, to the sauce. Then add the cream and stir over low heat until throughly combined. Serve and enjoy!

Notes

  • Serve over rice, with as much cilantro as you do or don’t desire.

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