Friday, October 02, 2009

Cilantro and its Enemies

A certain percentage of the population, it turns out, has a fierce hatred for cilantro. I had this in the back of my mind as I told a couple of friends about a delicious drink I had at a Brooklyn restaurant, a muddled cilantro and jalepeno-infused tequila concoction.

"I hate cilantro," one friend said. "Apparently I'm one of those rare people for whom cilantro tastes like bleach or dish soap."

My friend is not alone. Not even remotely. How did I not hear more about this before?

ihatecilantro.blogspot.com (there used to be another cilantro hater's website, ihatecilantro.com, but it is now a virus-generating mess -- don't go there.) has a handy "guide to cilantro-free restaurants." The blogger tries to mitigate her hatred by pointing out that she loves so many other things:
"...how could I or you or anyone so passionately hate something as much as cilantro without loving so much else, in fact most else, of nature's bounty, as foodies insist on calling it, or food, as I like to think of it."
People get weird about their food dislikes.

I should know: I hate cheese. I'll eat mild, tasteless mozzerella on pizza, but I'll pull it off if there's too much of it. I won't eat cheeseburgers. The smell of parmesan cheese is like an unbathed European to me. Feta smells like it sounds: like sweaty feet.

My hatred is so strong that I'm convinced there's a genetic component. I've gotten in heated arguments about this, and even ruined a relationship before it got off the ground because of it (The conversation went, "So if I had you over to my parents' house, you would refuse their food?" To which I responded, "yeah, if all they offered me was cheese." It was downhill from there.). But my brother feels the same way, so maybe it really is genetic.

Whatever it is, it's so strong in us that we characterize it as an allergy, partly because it literally makes us sick to our stomachs, partly because no one understands it or takes it seriously otherwise.

There is apparently genetic research that suggests, if I'm understanding this right, that vegetables like broccoli taste extra-bitter to some people, perhaps as an evolutionary mechanism to keep us away from compounds that would inhibit thyroid function. But there's also research that says that people who avoid bitter foods have higher risks of cancer because they aren't getting essential nutrients.

But back to cilantro. In a Wall Street Journal article from February, a cilantro hater recalls driving 20 miles to return a cilantro-tainted burrito, demanding a replacement "immediately."

Why do some people hate it so rabidly? It probably is genetic. An article on NPR.org explains that some people will not smell the lemony/limey freshness, but instead detect only an unpleasant bitter, soapy smell. The rest of us don't get that at all.

There may be another component at play with people who have strong flavor dislikes. So-called "supertasters" apparently have more taste receptors than the rest of us. A New York Times article from the late 90s explains that taste researchers divide the world into three groups:
A quarter of all people tested are nontasters, half are medium tasters and a quarter are supertasters -- people who react violently to PROP [6-n-propylthiouracil]. Medium tasters say the substance is bitter, but they are less sensitive than supertasters to small concentrations. Genetically speaking, two medium taster parents can produce a supertaster or a nontaster child, or a medium taster like themselves.

In looking at people's tongues with a special blue dye, researchers have found that supertasters have as many as 1,100 taste buds per square centimeter of tongue, while nontasters have as few as 11 buds per square centimeter.
I'm clearly not a supertaster; I love bitter foods and spicy foods. The article continues,
Supertasters find many sugary foods to be sickeningly sweet. Frosting is yucky. Saccharine has a strong aftertaste. Coffee is too bitter, and alcohol too sharp. Hot peppers and ginger produce an unpleasant burn. Food should be tepid.
The website supertastertest.com sells the PROP test for $4.95.

As we learn more about why some of us hate certain foods, will we become more tolerant of food quirks? It's hard to imagine not being chided to try stinky cheese by zealous moldy dairy lovers.

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