Monday, January 19, 2009

Science of Cilantro

The guest blogger today is Colleen and here's what she has to share. Thanks, Colleen!

Cilantro is noxious to some, pure happiness to others.

I actually SPOKE to the food genius Harold McGee (he wrote the food bible the Science of Food) about this when he spoke at a Palo Alto library function. He said something along the lines of everyone has their own individual universe of taste in his or her mouth.

So although most of us can agree upon chocolate and potato chips, you will always find exceptions, because everyone experiences a food individually and uniquely. And cilantro has chemical properties similar to those found in soap, which is why some people think they’ve mistakenly taken a swig from the Pantene bottle when they taste cilantro.

Interestingly, the same chemicals do not appear in coriander, the dried form of cilantro, and I eat that with no problem. So QED.

I will tell you that Ina Garten doesn’t like cilantro either and once I found that out I was able to get over my shame spiral about this most unfortunate shortcoming of mine.

The real name of the book is On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. The entry on cilantro is as follows:

"Coriander. Coriander or cilantro is said to be the world’s most widely consumed fresh herb. Coriandrum sativum is a native of the Middle East. Its seed has been found in Bronze Age settlements and in the tomb of King Tut; it was taken early to China, India, and Southeast Asia, and later to Latin America, and its rounded, notched, tender leaves are popular in all these regions. In Central and South America they came to replace Culantro, an indigenous relative with very similar flavor, but with large tough leaves. Coriander herb is not very popular in the Mediterranean and Europe, where its aroma is sometimes described as “soapy.” The main component of the aroma is a fatty aldehyde, decenal, which also provides the “waxy” note in orange peel. Decenal is very reactive, so coriander leaf quickly loses its aroma when heated. It’s therefore used most often as a garnish or in uncooked preparations. In Thailand, the root of the herb is an ingredient in some pounded spice pastes; the root contains no decenal and instead contributes woody and green notes, something like parsley."

Page 407, copyright 2004, Scribner.

This book, in case you are not familiar with it, is NOT a recipe book.

It is like an encyclopedia about food and the process of cooking. Almost all serious professional chefs have a copy in the kitchen. It is a tremendously useful book to have and comes in handy for science reports, too.

It is the sort of book you pull down and leaf through and find out the most interesting facts such as the daily caffeine consumption in milligrams per capita of Northern European countries as compared to the United States, sauce recipes from ancient Rome, how to temper chocolate, and a chart of Poisonings Caused by Toxic Algae.

Really, how can you go another day without a copy?


  1. I love cilantro so very, very much!

    I have been eating it daily for nearly two weeks now!

    Today, I had a very tasty meal:
    black beans and rice, grated monterey jack cheese, tomatillo sauce with lime and cilantro, a hint of hot sauce, a dollop of sour cream and lot of salt, of course. Yum! So good I had it for lunch and dinner!!!

  2. Yum, yum, yumj. Am salivating from the above meal description! I love cilantro, taco meat, in salads, in soup, in Thai food, etc. Coincidentally, there is a 171 class this Saturday on Thai cooking by the chef from Snug Harbor.
    Also, loved the photo of cilantro...the color reminded me of Michelle Obama's inaugural dress!

  3. Hey, Mittens! This isn't a fashion blog or a political blog -- but I do wonder if Michelle cooks and what -- plus I just wanted to clarify that I was trying to make the cilantro look scary to match Colleen's article -- I turned up the saturation --hmmm, maybe I overdid it.