Growing up, those who knew me knew I had a deep-seated hatred of broccoli. The story is as follows: As a child, my parents tried everything they could think of in order to coax me into eating vegetables. This included pouring melted cheese over a plate of broccoli in the hopes that I would finally enjoy the cruciferous veggie. Of course, I was eight, so it didn’t work and I proceeded to gag.
For 10 years after that, the very thought of broccoli left me feeling nauseated. I hated looking at it, hated smelling it, and hated even thinking about it. Eventually, my distaste turned into a joke for many of my friends and family, who took it upon themselves to try to scare me with it. Broccoli found its way into my macaroni and cheese, the ice dispenser in my freezer, and my breakfast on the regular.
Now, I still dislike the texture, but I seek out broccoli slaw. In place of my distaste for broccoli sits an overall aversion to cilantro. As I branched out in college and tried pho, banh mi, Thai duck dishes, and more inventive Mexican foods, I found that some items were practically inedible to me.
For a long time, I couldn’t figure it out. Why were so many dishes tasting so odd? It’s not like it was coming from one restaurant, one dining hall, or one dish. The problem was, I didn’t know where to start my research. I couldn’t quite pinpoint the flavors and had no idea what the ingredient in question was, so I couldn’t successfully Google my way out of this one.
Finally, back in 2010, I happened upon a New York Times piece with the headline “Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault.” Curious, but honestly not even thinking about my own issues, I read it anyway.
It was then that I learned the culprit was indeed cilantro. Cilantro was the reason I could only enjoy ceviche some of the time, the explanation to why sometimes guacamole tasted absolutely disgusting, the cause of my extreme aversion to pho and some curries, and the reason behind why I can almost never order fish tacos.
What it comes down to is that there’s a possible genetic link to the disliking of cilantro. More than that, the taste of cilantro is often associated with the taste of soap. The moment I read that, I realized that this soapiness was exactly the flavor I had been looking to pinpoint. Everything I was eating with just a little too much cilantro in it tasted like soap to me.
Well, the Times explains that this “aroma” comes from “modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes” and these aldehydes (or ones comparable) are also the ones used in soap. The article then goes on to explain in great detail why our primal instincts of smell and taste play a role in whether or not we like cilantro. Essentially, if our brain associates cilantro with “chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch” and tells us this is a “threat to our safety.”
It’s quite likely that this is exactly what happens to me any time I eat cilantro and I learned that the same problem exists for my mother, but not my father. Because the relation to genetics is so minor, though, it’s quite possible for me to change my association. If I choose to persevere, I can eventually enjoy cilantro-heavy dishes and the soapy aroma will subside.
Feature photo courtesy of Wheeler Cowperthwaite.