The Good, The Bad, The Cilantro

On the surface, it's just a leafy green herb. Its feathery fronds add a decorative note and a distinctive flavor to dishes across Latin America and Asia, from guacamole to phở. And yet cilantro is the most divisive herb in the kitchen, inspiring both deep dislike and equally deep devotion. What’s the history and science behind these strong reactions—and can cilantro disgust ever be overcome?

Some people (like Gastropod co-host Cynthia Graber) absolutely detest cilantro. From their very first taste of the humble herb, they find themselves repelled by what many consider a soapy, metallic, deeply off-putting flavor. These people are not shy about sharing their feelings: there are "I Hate Cilantro" websites, Facebook groups, and blogs. Somehow, cilantro inspires a degree of vociferous loathing that is unlike any other food.

And yet there are others (like co-host Nicola Twilley) who adore the herb. It adds what they consider a delightful green, herbal complexity to cuisines from Mexican to Thai to Indian. Billions of people around the world enjoy cilantro daily, and consider their guacamole, noodles, and soups nearly naked without it.

What is it that makes this herb a culinary essential for some and a culinary nemesis for others? In this episode of Gastropod, we speak with botanist Michael Balick to learn about the long culinary and medicinal history of the herb, whose recorded use dates back to the Babylonians. With scientist Charles Wysocki, we investigate the popular belief that cilantro hatred has a genetic basis by visiting the annual twin meet-up in Twinsburg, Ohio. And food scientist and author Harold McGee joins Gastropod to coach Cynthia through his recommended cilantro desensitization technique, by adding cilantro pesto to her daily diet.

This episode is introduced by best-selling author and marketing guru Seth Godin, a cilantro hater who suggested Cynthia become a guinea pig for cilantro conversion therapy, in his stead. But will Cynthia be able to choke down a daily dose of the green stuff? Will she end up tolerating—even perhaps liking—the herb by the end of the week? Whether you're a lover or a hater, listen in to find out the answer—and the history and science behind it.

Episode Notes

Seth Godin

Seth Godin is the cilantro hater who asked Gastropod to investigate the science and history behind this divisive herb. He's also the author of 18 bestselling books on marketing, leadership, and the way ideas spread: the most recent is titled What To Do When It's Your Turn. He writes one of the most popular blogs in the world.

Michael Balick

Michael Balick is vice president for Botanical Science at the New York Botanical Garden, and author of Rodale's Twenty-first Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants.

Harold McGee and the Cilantro Desensitization Pesto

Harold McGee writes about the chemistry of food and cooking, most famously in his book On Food and Cooking. His 2010 New York Times article titled "Cilantro Haters, It's Not Your Fault" suggested making this Portuguese-inspired pesto as the first step in cilantro conversion therapy.

Washington Post, 1994

In her senior year of college, Cynthia and her roommate Melissa Strecker gleefully brandished this Washington Post article, "Has a Nation Taken Leaf of Its Senses?" to demonstrate they were not alone in their cilantro dislike. This was the first instance Cynthia had seen of a public display of cilantro loathing, one to which she felt an immediate kinship.

An anti-cilantro community.

Charles Wysocki

Charles Wysocki is an emeritus member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center whose research explores individual variation in smell perception as well as human pheromones. His 2012 paper, "Genetic Analysis of Chemosensory Traits in Human Twins," identified the genetic associations common to cilantro haters.

Twins Festival

The world's largest gathering of twins takes place each year in Twinsburg, Ohio.

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