August 16, 2011
Many years ago I became interested in Iranian food, and one ingredient frequently listed in herb mixes which was not available in Iowa at the time was cilantro. So I ordered some seed and planted it. The first seed leaves came up and I sampled one; no smell on them. Finally several days later, I saw some real leaves coming up, so I plucked one and popped into my mouth. "Wow! People in Iran eat soap!" I thought. I tried it again a few days later, and it seemed just as disgusting and implausible that someone would actually want to eat that.
But what's a story without irony? It was many years later, in Seattle, that I was eating in a Thai restaurant and noticed this odd flavor/smell in the Larb Gai. But this time, oddly pleasant. It still tasted like soap, but sort of tasty soap. So I hate to be a traitor to the cause...I can still definitely see how someone might find cilantro disgusting, because I did; it took the right combination for it to work. I don't think I would have been able to eat a salad filled with cilantro when I first tried it, but I'm not sure about the genetic theory - I've never heard of an Algerian, Moroccan, Georgian, Thai, or Vietnamese who had such violent reactions to it. While there could be people anywhere who don't like it, I think it's a phenomenon of places where it's just unfamiliar, and it is, admittedly, a flavor that doesn't resemble anything else, except a few other similarly odd herbs. It's like the difference between people who grow up eating plain yogurt, or even drinking it diluted in water, with added salt (in Turkey); and those who couldn't imagine it without sugar and fruit, like most folks I know in the US.
Now Vietnamese fish mint - there's one rank-tasting herb!