Having taught Indian cooking to discerning New Yorkers for the past 10 years, I have conducted my own informal poll on those who fall into the cilantro loving team and those who fall into the cilantro disliking team.
Having grown up in India where almost every meal must’ve had some version of cilantro, and or cilantro seeds (coriander) in it – I was surprised when I met the first student who turned her nose up to a beautiful bunch of cilantro that I showed everyone in class. She said that it tasted like soap. “Really?” I was dumbfounded. From then on I started asking every group that I taught about their feelings towards cilantro. Inevitably, in a group of 10 to 12 students one person said that it tasted like soap to them. If there wasn’t that someone in that group; there was always one who knew someone who didn’t care for cilantro.
There must be something to it – I told myself. Today’s article in the New York Times written by Harold McGee tries to explain that aversion to cilantro. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/dining/14curious.html?ref=dining
My most scary experience with Cilantro!
I had a catering client for whom I cooked for many years. She was an excellent client and I joke that she helped pay most of my bills for almost 5 years, and so I did my best to keep her happy and satisfied. One of the first dinners I did in her home was a Home-style Indian meal. I was excited and terrified at the same time. She was a force to reckon with and also so very important to my bottom line. I was getting everything ready; the 40 to 50 guests had arrived and were enjoying their cocktails and anticipating the delicious meal that was on its way to the buffet table. As I got the appetizer trays ready, the heady aroma of the Basmati rice was filling the kitchen and wafting into the living room. I also had the lamb curry heating up and the lentils ready to get the tadka at the last-minute. I made sure the cilantro was washed, dried and chopped in various degrees of chopped-ness ready to stir into dishes and garnish others. Needless to say, the kitchen was in full swing and buzzing.
I turned around and Mrs. Most-Important Client’s assistant was standing right there. She told me everything looked and smelled so good. I had a bunch of cilantro in my hand and she told me casually – “Mrs. Most Important Client is allergic to cilantro.” My mouth dropped and the color probably left my face. “Really, she is allergic to Cilantro!
But I had learned that Indian food is one of her favorite foods, with Mexican being a close second, “and you told me a list of her favorite restaurants. How does she eat there if she is allergic to cilantro?!” As I was saying all this to her assistant – my mind was visualizing all the dishes I had on the menu. Other than the dessert, everything has some version of cilantro in it. I wanted to sit down with my head in my hands, but a caterer can never do that. She just has to make it work and do it with a smile.
I repeated the question again, “Is she allergic to cilantro, really?” Hoping for a different answer this time. Mrs. Most Important Client’s assistant nodded her head, clearly feeling my pain. I took a deep breath and said, “I wish I had known this before but no problem, I will come up with something.” I wrapped the bunch of cilantro I was holding in my hand into a damp towel to keep it fresh and also to hide it from my sight, so I coul think for a moment.
I contemplated sending someone out and buying some onions, tomatoes, and chicken or fish and quickly making up a chicken curry for Mrs. Most Important. Then I thought of the list of her favorite Indian restaurants again. Having eaten in most of them I knew that they all had cilantro in most of their dishes. Mrs. Important is important but not that important that they would make a whole cilantro free meal from her each time she came in. Moreover, a lot of Indian dishes that are stew like (curries) need to be cooked ahead of time – so their flavors are intense and robust.
Then I got it! She just doesn’t like cilantro, and wasn’t allergic to it at all. The assistant confirmed that. I was pissed at the use of the word allergic but more relieved than anything else. Mrs. Important didn’t want to see the cilantro in her food, but was okay with eating it when it was hidden in food.
I think that goes for most people who dislike cilantro. I have no way of proving that – just a hunch.
Please feel free to disagree with me and make comments. I like that.
The dinner was a success and most things were garnished with fresh mint instead of cilantro. I continued to cook for Mrs. Important for many more years to come. So I must’ve done something right.