Sick Of Strange Aftertastes? Cooking For Fussy Eaters? Here’s What You Need...
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Despite being an incredibly popular seasoning in a variety of cuisines, perhaps most notably Thai food, many of us can’t stand cilantro (or if you’re from Europe, you probably call it coriander.)This funny little plant is like Marmite - you either love it or hate it. If you’re one of the former, you probably think it tastes like soap, right? Nobody wants their guacamole or fresh salad to taste like the inside of a Lush store.
More on the exact science behind the strange soapy sensation later, but for now, let’s talk about what you’re here for: cilantro substitutions. What can you use in place of this leafy green when a recipe calls for it?
First things first, if it’s serving as a garnish, you could just leave it out altogether, or experiment with other herbs you have to hand. Nobody is going to miss it in the recipe, unless you’ve promised them a cilantro taste!
When you want to fire up your food with a natural, almost grassy element like cilantro, but avoid upsetting the people who don’t like it, there are a couple of options for you:
Parsley is very often presumed to be cilantro anyway, as they are visually very similar.
It can be more bitter on average, but paired with fruits and veggies, it really enhances the overall freshness of a dish, especially if paired with a squirt of lemon juice.
Dill is quite different from cilantro, visually and as far as your palate is concerned.
However, you only need a tiny little bit to pack quite a large flavor punch, and it tastes good with pretty much anything. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll end up with a different dinner emergency.
Basil as a plant is closely related to cilantro, though the former has a natural sweetness that brings a little extra something, and flavorwise, the two are very similar.
Only now, a select few of your dinner guests won’t feel like they’re chewing on a bar of Dove!
A Mix of Different Herbs
Blending a mix of different herbs to replicate cilantro’s complicated taste is also a possibility - dill, basil and parsley obviously work great for this, but you could also throw in some oregano or tarragon to spice things up a little.
Top Tip: All of the above should be added AFTER cooking, prior to serving, as the intensity of their flavor will be significantly reduced once introduced to any heat.
You could also steer the dish in another taste direction, adding in a strong flavor that people generally tend to enjoy; where cilantro is called for, it’s usually to cut against another taste, so you need something that packs a punch, like garlic or pepper flakes.
But what about if your great-grandma’s special recipe stipulates you need dried or ground cilantro (or coriander seeds - where cilantro comes from) - what then?!
Don’t freak out - there are some seasoning powders you probably already have in your spice rack that could also work in your dish.
Caraway and ground cilantro seeds have a very similar taste - you can definitely swap them out for each other, no matter what it is you’re cooking up.
Do bear in mind that it tends to have a bit of a sweeter aftertaste, which works particularly well for leave-on rubs or marinades, as adding heat will only serve to enhance the flavor.
Cumin is often partnered up with cilantro in Latin American dishes, as well as in Thai curries and other gorgeous and fragrant foods.
Being on the spicier side, beware of using too much, but you and your guests will adore the fiery notes that cumin brings to just about anything.
Curry powder utilizes a variety of different dried spices and seasonings - one of which is cilantro - to create its unique and delicious flavor profile, which is strong enough to conquer anything you might be cooking and add a little pep.
Plus, if you taste something you’re not quite sure about, curry powder covers a multitude of sins!
Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap?
Now that you’re all sorted with a replacement seasoning, you might be wondering what it is that causes that funky soap flavor. Well, according to research at Cornell University, where approximately 30,000 participants were surveyed, it’s pretty simple.
Results indicate that the common denominator among those who don’t enjoy the taste of cilantro is one tiny little gene, known as OR6A2. Although its presence doesn’t GUARANTEE you’ll hate it, it certainly explains why you could.
As a receptor gene part of our tasting system, it works to code messages that you receive from what’s known as an aldehyde chemical - aldehyde itself is ALSO found in certain soaps, as well as existing in the bodies of specific bugs… ew.
Anyway, because soap and cilantro share this one unique property, it can cause people to offhandedly remark about their similarities, especially in flavor. Not that anybody eats soap on purpose - it’s more the smell that this herb is reminiscent of.
Likewise, if your tongue is larger than average, or has a higher density of ‘papillae’ - the small bumpy things on your tongue in which taste buds are contained - you’ll have a higher concentration of receptors generally, making you more likely to be sensitive to stronger flavors.
But wait, there’s more! A further study from the food journal Flavour revealed that those living in specific parts of the world are more likely to hate the taste of cilantro:
Between 3-7% of folks in South Asia and the Middle East spurn cilantro, compared to a whopping 17% of people from Europe.
Essentially, it’s all about science and geography and culture. If you’re exposed to a flavor early, you’re more likely to enjoy it, which is why South Asian communities tend to dislike it less - it’s present in a lot of their traditional dishes, which are consumed from a young age.
Can I Teach Myself To Like Cilantro?
Surprisingly… yes! It’s no secret that our food tastes and preferences change as we grow. Think about how much you used to hate vegetables as a kid, and now happily heap them onto your plate at every meal (well… most of us do.)
The more we eat and are exposed to different flavors and cuisines, the more likely we are to enjoy them, which is why children are often said to ‘grow out’ of fussiness, as their taste buds ‘develop’ - which is code for gradually dulling over time.
Like a lot of other strange things humans do, the dislike of cilantro and other strong flavors could be linked to our ancestors, the very first people of Earth. Our natural response to foods is actually an evolutionary tactic to avoid being poisoned!
You see, thousands or millions of years ago, our ancient family members would forage the woods for random things to eat, working solely from trial and error. Over time, they learned that foods with a sweet taste were “safe” to eat.
However, anything with a bitter taste profile often resulted in an upset stomach at the very least, and death as the worst possible option. Now, cilantro has a pretty bitter taste the first time you eat it, or kind of metallic, like sucking on a copper penny.
Therefore, your initial response to cilantro may well be: yuck! Spit that out! An additional few taste tests might also lead to that reaction. But the more you try it, the more acclimated to the taste you’ll become; eventually, you may actually enjoy it!
Think about it like caviar - it’s essentially fish eggs, and most people are repulsed by it. But richer folk tend to ADORE caviar, because they have eaten it a lot of times and are therefore used to the richer, more complex tastes it produces.
To help yourself on your journey to liking cilantro (or any food, really) - try crushing it up before you introduce it to your recipe. Research indicates that the crushing process leads to the release of an enzyme that minimizes the aldehyde present.
Plus, if you add it as an ingredient to something with a strong flavor that you’re already a fan of, you’ll be able to somewhat disguise the majority of the taste, whilst gradually getting used to it. A win-win situation!
Are There Benefits To Eating Cilantro?
Well, yes, but you don’t need to force yourself to eat it in order to reap the benefits! There are plenty of other foods offering the same vitamins, minerals and biological effects. That being said, let’s talk about why cilantro is good for you.
Certain studies (albeit performed on animals, not humans) have indicated that cilantro - more specifically, coriander seeds, oils or extracts - are GREAT at lowering your blood sugar.
So much so that those with a naturally low blood sugar level should avoid eating too much, as it could lead to adverse effects. This is as a result of its ability to promote your body’s production of enzymes that strip the blood of sugar naturally.
Other research (also performed on animals and in test tubes) appears to suggest that cilantro works well at lowering cholesterol levels; high cholesterol is associated with heart disease and is a significant risk factor, so introducing some of this herb into your diet certainly isn’t going to hurt!
You can also find plenty of antioxidants in cilantro, which are said to have properties that serve to boost our immune systems, fight against pain and inflammation and prevent further damage to our cells. These are most important in the fight against cancer, though don’t mistake eating some cilantro for a miracle cure.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cilantro has a lot of anti-inflammatory properties; diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Dementia are all somewhat associated with inflammation.
It stands to reason, then, that adding a bit of cilantro to your meals here and there could have the potential to keep your mind that bit more active for longer.
Disclaimer - although the above information has been backed by scientific research, do not take it as gospel. There’s nothing to suggest cilantro is curative on its own, and there are many other factors involved in staying healthy. Take care!