Cilantro: Americans either love it or, yuck
By Jaime Buerger
Thousands of Americans are engaged in a fiery debate over what some call the devil’s weed, and others consider heaven sent.
“It’s like the moon is crashing into the Earth,” complained Rob Carney, a 25-year-old data analyst in Boston, “and there’s fire and everything is burning, and everything is wrong.”
Becca Schlafer, a 28-year-old teacher in Louisville, Ky., couldn’t disagree more. “It’s light and lemony and refreshing,” insisted Schlafer. “It just makes really boring, cheap food taste better.”
Love it or hate it, cilantro–the leafy little herb with the strong smell and even stronger taste–has polarized the populace.
It used to be that cilantro was hard to come by in the United States. Unless you loved Latin or Asian cuisines, in which cilantro is used liberally, you might not have even known it existed. But over the last decade, the number of ethnic restaurants using cilantro–particularly Tex Mex, Thai and Vietnamese–has skyrocketed. As a result, so have passions for the pungent plant, fueling a backlash from Americans enraged by what they see as its rampant overuse.
It’s certainly hard to avoid. These days, cilantro can be found almost anywhere, from mainstream supermarkets to the taco stand on the corner. It’s used in salsas, curries and, increasingly, on pasta and fish. President Bush is a fan; White House executive chef Cris Comerford has said she sprinkles it on dinners for the First Family.
“It’s become a very modern, popular herb,” said Kristine Kidd, food editor at Bon Appetit magazine. “When we call for it in Bon Appetit, we don’t have to offer a substitute because it’s so readily available now,” she said, noting that cilantro makes an appearance in a recipe in every issue of the magazine.
It might be relatively new to American palates, but cilantro has been used in cooking for centuries. A piece of cilantro is a leaf from the coriander plant. Flat and fragile with jagged edges, cilantro leaves resemble parsley but taste nothing like it. If you’ve never seen cilantro up close, you’ve probably smelled it passing through the produce section of a grocery store–it’s the most aromatic of all herbs.
So what does it taste like? Well, that’s where the debate begins.
“When I first had it, it tasted like a tin can. It was kind of soapy but mostly metallic,” said Leslie Blythe Miller of Pasadena, Calif. As a personal chef, she knows how controversial cilantro has become. Even at family get-togethers, she said, the relatives were divided. “When my mother-in-law, who makes a lot of Mexican food, makes albondiga soup, she always has a little bowl of it separate because she knows half the family likes it and half doesn’t,” she said.
But for Jessica Sachariason, a 25-year-old publicist from Minneapolis, it was love at first bite. She puts cilantro on nearly everything she eats. “There’s something in it that, to me, just makes the dish that much better,” Sachariason said. “It doesn’t have to be Mexican, it doesn’t have to be an Asian dish–just anything. The other day I made pasta with capers and a little bit of shrimp, and I put cilantro on it.”
That sort of cockeyed affection for cilantro is what prompted Jed Sundwall, 27, a graduate student at University of California, San Diego, to begin work on a documentary on the subject called, simply, “Cilantro.” He got the idea for his film while on a vacation in Mexico. “We drove through farmland and a truck passed us that was full of freshly harvested cilantro, and the smell blew into our car,” he said. “We had our windows down. We could smell it in the wake of this truck.” Soon afterward, he discovered that the taste divided Americans into two equally passionate groups.
“It’s a divisive herb,” he explained.
Wherever he travels, Sundwall asks people about cilantro, and from Washington, D.C., to California, they eagerly sound off about the seasoning. “We can just walk up to a taco stand or a farmer’s market and let the camera roll,” Sundwall said. “People will just talk and talk and talk.”
Rachael Narins, 31, a chef in Los Angeles, believes the country may have become overly consumed by the cilantro cause. “If you say that you don’t like cilantro, the person you’re talking with will jump in there and say, ‘Oh my God, I love it! It’s the best thing ever! Ah, I could bathe in it!’” Narins said. “And I’m like, ‘Um, can you take it down a notch?’”
Opponents of cilantro feel as though they’re fighting a losing battle. “I would keep asking people about cilantro, because it was on my mind, but everyone liked it,” said Carney, the data analyst. “Every once in a while I would meet someone who also didn’t like cilantro, and it was this big revelation.”
Last summer, to help build support for the anti-cilantro campaign, Carney founded the online support group ihatecilantro.com. In retaliation, a group of cilantro lovers launched their own site, ilovecilantro.com.
“It makes me feel better that other people know there are others out there who hate it,” Carney said, explaining that he formed the Web site “as a way for people to know they’re not alone.”