As I dropped a bunch of cilantro into a sink full of soapy water tonight, I almost said to myself, “How ironic!”  I quickly realized that soap-covered cilantro is not ironic – merely humorously coincidental.  You know, because of the “cilantro tastes like soap” thing.

No clue?

Then you’ve obviously never tasted cilantro.

Coriandrum sativum. What we call cilantro is actually the leaves (and stems) of the Coriander plant. Coriander is believed to be named after "koris", the Greek word for "bedbug" as it was said they both emitted a similar odor.

Cilantro is a leafy green herb that figures prominently in Southeast Asian and Latin American cuisine (it’s what gives salsa that fresh grass-like aroma and taste), and Americans either love it or hate it. I fall squarely into the “love it” camp.  I buy it almost every week, and search for recipes in which to use it.  Hummus, melon salsa, chopped and tossed in with salad greens…

Those who love it don’t give a second thought, but those who hate it think it tastes like soap or hand lotion. And they will tell you all about it – haters seem to be quite vocal about their aversion.  There are several cilantro-hater blogs out there, as well as an a couple of  Facebook pages dedicated to…well, to hating it.

Better than Farmville, I suppose.

Even people that you think must love everything hate it – including Julia Child.  Larry King interviewed Julia back in 2002, and asked her what foods she hated.  The exchange:

JC:  Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me.

LK: So you would never order it?

JC: Never.  I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.

Why do some people love cilantro and some people think it tastes like soap?  Is it something to do with our taste buds?  Anatomy?  Physiology?  Evolution?  Geography?  Chemistry?

Harold McGee, preeminent food scientist and author of the food chemist’s bible: “On Food and Cooking”, did a brief interview on a recent episode of The Splendid Table, and provided a fascinatingly satisfactory scientific explanation for cilantro revulsion: it’s all about the aldehydes, my friends.  Isn’t it always?

Chemistry first.  Turns out, the molecules that give soap and hand lotion their distinctive odor are the same ones that give cilantro its flavor – aldehydes.  Aldehydes are the byproduct of soap-making (called “saponification”), a process which breaks down large fat molecules into smaller fragments using strong chemicals, leaving behind the distinctively odoriferous aldehydes.

And then, evolution comes in.  Followed by conditioning, and finally, acceptance.

I’d explain it, but McGee does a much better job, plus I’m the one who ended my career as a chemist because I thought it was boring.  You can listen to the interview here.

And tell me, on which side of the cilantro fence do you fall?

Whatever you do, don't buy cilantro in this form. Blech. Buy fresh!