One Woman’s Losing Battle With Cilantro

The seemingly innocent, fresh, green garnish called cilantro has split a nation. Some people say it tastes delightful. Others say it tastes just like soap. Believe it or not, neither group is crazy. Both cilantro and soap have something very important in common.

Leslie Bailey was 9 years old when she saw a bunch of parsley sitting on the kitchen counter. She loved parsley.

“So I grabbed a handful and shoved it in my mouth only to taste the most awful soap taste I could imagine,” says Bailey. “Yes, I have sadly had a very long battle with cilantro.”

Jared Cross just celebrated his 39th birthday. His dish of choice – pulled chicken tacos doused with cilantro.  

“Love cilantro,” says Cross, who considers himself a pretty good chef. “No soap here.”

Much like the phenomenon of Yanny or Laurel – that viral audio clip that divided the ears of the nation —  the planet’s taste buds are also split on the taste of cilantro.

And it’s a l0ve-hate split with, seemingly, no middle ground.

Love equals a fresh, green perfect accent to dishes like stir fry, salad dressings, smothered chicken, rice and grilled halibut.

Hate means food ruined by the shavings of something that tastes like a bar of cleanser.

So, how can the exact same flavorful garnish taste so completely different to two people?  

Turns out similar components, called aldehydes, are found in both cilantro and soaps, says Jonathan Ting, M.D., chief of otolaryngology at IU Health Methodist Hospital. 

And for some people, their genetic makeup allows them to pick up that taste in cilantro. For others, it’s like it doesn’t even exist.

“Cilantro tastes like soap to some people because of a variation in some genes that are involved with smell and taste,” Dr. Ting says, adding with a smile “cilantro tastes pretty good to me.”

As for Bailey, after that childhood kitchen encounter, she could detect the smallest traces of cilantro no matter what the dish – even in a bit of salsa.

She was so adamant about her distaste that a server at an Indian restaurant would tease Bailey that he had put extra cilantro in her meal.

Of late, though, Bailey’s cilantro hatred has softened, ever so slightly. She has been able to eat food that has a tiny bit of the flavor.  

Still, when people who love cilantro describe it, Bailey said she imagines it tastes to them what parsley tastes like to her.

“Nice and fresh,” she says. “I truly wish I liked it because it is in all of my favorite foods.”

— By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Benbow via email or on Twitter @danabenbow.