Cilantro. Yes, I know, I HAAAAAAaaatte Cilantro…
Well I did hate Cilantro. There’s a strong divide in the food community (of which I am most certainly NOT a part of) over Cilantro. In layman’s terms, (since I did a lot of internet reading and don’t expect you to also go and read fifty articles on cilantro), it’s basically that the brain of the ‘haters’ detects the aldehydes (the smell of the broken down fat molecules) which are similar to the aldehydes that soap, cleaning agents and bugs exhibit. The hater’s brains tell you it’s a poison and to avoid it. The ‘lovers’ detect the same aldehydes but reference them from a positive place (companionship, food culture, good experiences) and it’s not detected as a poison.
A NYTimes article says this about converting ‘haters’ to ‘lovers’:
The senses of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions, he explained, because they were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators. When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.
If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.
“When your brain detects a potential threat, it narrows your attention,” Dr. Gottfried told me in a telephone conversation. “You don’t need to know that a dangerous food has a hint of asparagus and sorrel to it. You just get it away from your mouth.”
But he explained that every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food.
“I didn’t like cilantro to begin with,” he said. “But I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day.”
“So I began to like cilantro,” he said. “It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.”
Cilantro itself can be reshaped to make it easier to take. A Japanese study published in January suggested that crushing the leaves will give leaf enzymes the chance to gradually convert the aldehydes into other substances with no aroma.
Sure enough, I’ve found cilantro pestos to be lotion-free and surprisingly mild. They actually have deeper roots in the Mediterranean than the basil version, and can be delicious on pasta and breads and meats. If you’re looking to work on your cilantro patterns, pesto might be the place to start.
Now, I couldn’t classify myself as being in the ‘lover’ camp and I would probably decline Cilantro in most things if I could, but I think my ‘food map’ is being altered. One of my closest friends makes salsa with cilantro in it (because he wouldn’t dream of changing a good recipe because of my ‘irrational hatred’. And I love every moment I spend with him and everything he makes (except oatmeal!).
And that gets me to the moral of my story. I made a crockpot today and the recipe called for Cilantro. Normally, I would avoid this, but the chef is known to make amazing food and I wanted to make her recipe as written (except I couldn’t find liquid smoke… grrr!).
And I’d write out the recipe for you here, but no one does as good a job as she at photographing and describing her creations, so go here to find it. And then put her on your rss feed or your blog list because she’s pretty amazing and her entries never fail to amuse, cause hunger and inspire.