Here at Washington Post Food HQ, we’re used to questions about substitutions and recipe changes. One of the most common ingredients that trips people up is cilantro.
“This is one herb you either like or dislike — there seems to be no middle road,” writes British author, grower and gardening expert Jekka McVicar in her book, “Jekka’s Herb Cookbook.”
To say people dislike cilantro seems like one of those charming English understatements, because often the sentiment that arises is more like loathing. “Has A Nation Taken Leaf of Its Senses?” screamed an over-the-top Washington Post article from 1994, in which author Elizabeth Kastor calls cilantro “an affront” that “tastes like the grief you feel over the public humiliation of a favorite teacher who was found drinking in the language lab.”
Often, however, people describe the taste of cilantro as soapy. As Harold McGee explained in the New York Times some years back, that comparison makes sense given that cilantro’s aroma shares some of its flavor substances with soap. McVicar also mentions the scent “is said to resemble a crushed bedbug,” which was a new one for me (shudder). Then again, McGee cites the Oxford Companion to Food when he explains that the word coriander, another name for cilantro, “is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug.” Anyway, whether that soapy/bug taste is the result of some kind of genetic factor or merely a result of your environment (cilantro is a lot more integral to some cuisines than others) is almost beside the point when someone who can’t stand it is confronted by it.
“It’s one of those flavors you can distinctly pick out of any dish,” says Bill Williamson, executive chef at Washington’s BLT Prime, who admits to being able to tolerate cilantro only some of the time. Given his job, he’s used to working around people who claim a sensitivity or allergy to the herb. Here’s some advice from him and others if you’re in the same boat.
Leave it off. Honestly, it’s sometimes as simple as that. If the recipe is merely using cilantro as a garnish, you’re not going to make or break the dish by skipping it. Or set aside a separate bowl to let your guests add as much or as little of it as they want to.
Make a substitution. At the restaurant, Williamson says, the kitchen often swaps in a mix of parsley, tarragon and dill for cilantro. And because cilantro lends a bright, citrusy pop of flavor, lime or lemon zest is another option. He also likes carrot tops. “It’s kind of a warm, earthy, sweeter spicy flavor,” he says of the greens, which can otherwise go to waste. Depending on the dish, you may also be able to get away with mint or basil. Real Simple recommends Thai basil, which is a great idea I wish I had thought of, because it has a sharp pungency similar to cilantro’s. Of course, any major herb substitution is going to change the flavor of the dish.
Try a different form. Coriander seeds are from the cilantro plant, so Williamson says you can try them instead. Some people might find them more palatable. McVicar says the seeds even “develop a delightful orange-like scent.” If you can get your hands on it, micro cilantro is also worth a shot because it’s less potent than the full-size plant, Williamson says. (In Washington, Little Wild Things City Farm sells a variety of microgreens, including cilantro.)
Get used to it! If you’re interested in seeing whether you can get over your cilantro aversion, it’s certainly possible. Just ask the neuroscientist in McGee’s piece, who also happens to be an expert in smell. McGee notes that crushing cilantro may help eliminate its more soapy aroma substances. He’s also a fan of cilantro pesto, which he calls “lotion-free and surprisingly mild.” Similarly, I think a good Indian chutney is another great way to go. “If you can surround yourself with likable dishes,” Williamson says, “maybe you can kind of change your attitude toward the actual herb itself.”
Not convinced? That’s fine. Here are a few recipes from our archives where you can easily make a switch.
Carrot and Cilantro Noodle Soup. You’re using carrots anyway, so you might as well try Williamson’s suggestion to use carrot greens.
Grilled Corn and Scallion Toast With Cilantro Crema. To keep the crema green, you could definitely go for parsley instead of cilantro. Throw in the zest of the lime you’re juicing to make up for the punch you’re losing.
Grilled Pork Cutlets With Cilantro Peanut Pesto. Mint and pork are often paired, and it would not be a stretch to use it in this pesto.
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