April 14, 2010

I Still Don't Understand Cilantrophobes

And I really don't understand this soap comparison, but it's apparently a fairly common perception of cilantro, writes the always excellent Harold McGee in the New York Times. I suppose a "soapy" smell or taste is better than a buggy one, a comparison that was apparently somewhat common at one time.

Modern cilantrophobes tend to describe the offending flavor as soapy rather than buggy. I don’t hate cilantro, but it does sometimes remind me of hand lotion. Each of these associations turns out to make good chemical sense.

Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects.

My own love of cilantro probably began with Vietnamese food, which I consumed in abundance -- somewhat reticently at first -- in the mid-90s during my first years in D.C. with my girlfriend (and eventual wife -- the one who wins giant chocolate bunnies!). I don't like to get too verbose when it comes to describing food, but cilantro really is one of those herbs that has a small that sets my taste buds a firin'. Fresh is always the word that comes to mind. Possibly flowery. And even citrusey, probably because I combine lime juice and cilantro so often.

But there are many who hate cilantro, including a good friend of mine who is an accomplished home cook and vino maker and, apparently, Julia Child, who, Mr. McGee recounts, explained that she would "throw it on the floor" if she found it in her food. So, yes, even Julia Child had her shortcomings.

The latter part of the article really caught my attention, though. Because it helped to explain how somebody like me -- who up until my 20s had a very limited diet, to say the least: no fish, little veg, overcooked meat, among other atrocities -- came to have a pretty expansive taste for food.

When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to, [explained Dr. Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist from Northwestern University]. 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. ...

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.

Perhaps this explains how my son, who will quickly spit a green bean out on the table, or the floor, now will eat a bit of sushi, vacuumed some fairly spicy sausage recently, and loves Asian dumplings (regardless of what's inside them, even vegetables!). Perhaps the smells of the cooking going on in the kitchen -- even when he isn't going to eat what is being prepared -- are beginning to establish new patterns in his brain. I like the idea of it, that's for sure!


marzipanmom said...

I love cilantro - sometimes I just pick it from the garden and eat it straight up! I have a healthy patch of cilantro growing in the garden right now - I love plants that re-seed themselves! Can't stand tarragon though...maybe they could analyze that one for me.

Fillippelli the (Wannabe) Cook said...

I like tarragon, but it definitely can quickly become overwhelming.