Coriander Controversy, Why Cilantro Tastes Like Soap To Some

For Indians, coriander (also known as coriander) is an integral part of the culinary journey. Few Indian dishes are complete without a touch of green to brighten it up, but for some people, it’s not a zesty punch of flavour, instead, it tastes distinctly like soap, and to some unlucky few it’s described as tasting like bugs.

Approximately 20% of individuals possess a genetic predisposition that renders the herb's taste offensive to their palates. This genetic divide hinges on olfactory-receptor genes that enable the detection of aldehydes—a class of compounds present in coriander as well as in soaps and certain insect secretions.

The roots of coriander's unpalatable reputation stretch far beyond modern times. In the annals of history, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, coriander was labelled as a "stinking herbe" with venomous leaves by English botanist John Gerard. The scorn extended across the English Channel, with French scientist Olivier de Serres likening coriander's fragrance to that of stink bugs. Intriguingly, this vilification wasn't solely an outcome of genetics; etymology played a role. The term "coriander," traces its origins to the Greek word "koros," meaning "bug." Even individuals without the genetic predisposition might have recoiled from the herb due to its unfortunate nomenclature.

Its notoriety extended its tendrils into the culinary sphere, transcending eras and nations. Culinary icon Julia Child herself expressed her disdain for coriander, vowing to discard it if it dared enter her meal. Modern digital communities, such as the "I Hate Cilantro" Facebook group and blog, offer platforms for coriander detractors to unite and share their shared aversion.

The origins of this curious phenomenon can be traced to the interplay of genetics and aroma perception. Scientists And genetic specialists put their skills to the test and determined that this taste conundrum was down to the role of a specific receptor gene, OR6A2, located on chromosome 11, in detecting aldehyde components. Consequently, individuals harbouring the OR6A2 gene can discern the aldehydes in coriander, which manifest as a soapy odour. Conversely, those devoid of this receptor gene remain oblivious to the soapy taste, forming a clear boundary between coriander enthusiasts and coriander-phobes.

Remarkably, ancestry has a significant influence on coriander aversion. People with European or Caucasian heritage are more prone to disliking coriander due to their genetic inclination to detect aldehydes. This genetic backdrop sheds light on the relatively scant presence of coriander in Western cuisine, where its pungency is met with scepticism and even disdain.

Yet, hope is not lost for those yearning to overcome their coriander aversion. A Japanese study suggests that crushing coriander before use could facilitate the gradual transformation of aldehydes, mitigating the soapy aroma. Or from a neuroscientific angle, you could just rewire your brain entirely through gradual positive conditioning, although this method is long and intense the brain can learn to forge new connections. 

The saga of coriander's taste, from its genetic underpinnings to its historical controversies and modern culinary implications, showcases the multifaceted nature of our sensory experiences. As coriander bridges cultures and divides palates, its story stands as a testament to the intricate interplay between genetics, perception, and the art of gastronomy.