Hate the herb? It could be your genes. Or it could be what your Mum cooked when you were growing up.
Kylie Walker

9 Apr 2019 - 11:31 AM  UPDATED 2 May 2019 - 2:46 PM

For some, it’s a horrid herb that tastes like soap or dirt. For others, it’s an essential part of their favourite Asian and south American dishes.

Yep, we’re talking coriander. This pungent plant, also known as cilantro in some parts of the world, is not only one of the world’s most common herbs but one of it’s most versatile too. Originally native to regions of southern Europe, North Africa and Asia, its leaves, stems, seeds and roots are used right around the globe. If you’re a coriander lover, you can embrace it in everything from coriander pesto to this coriander curry.

And did you know the flowers are also edible? Coriander grower Sarah Heath says they are her favourite part of the plant. We’ll get back to those very pretty flowers, and some tips from Heath on growing coriander, but let’s tackle the big question first:  why is it so divisive – and can you learn to like it, if you are a coriander hater?

It could be your genes…

Some people really, truly hate coriander. In fact, there’s a website entirely devoted to stories – and haiku – about just how much people hate the herb. “I would rather put a toothpick under my toenail and kick a wall than eat cilantro,” says one recent poster at ihatecilantro.com.

Research shows that what some people taste when they eat fresh coriander is decidedly unappealing. While most people love coriander for its fresh, bright citrus-y flavours (such as in the roast blue-eye with walnut and coriander sauce, below), others have a very different experience. If you’re one of them, you’ll know the feeling: an incredibly pungent, slightly bitter, soapy flavour.  And it seems it’s to do with a difference in how we smell, which in turn influences what we taste.

As the Australian Academy of Science explains, when we eat, taste receptors on the tongue and smell receptors inside the nose together send signals to the brain. Differences in our DNA can produce slight differences in these receptors, and in the case of coriander, mean that some people might detect soapy-flavoured chemicals found in coriander, while others do not.

“Research has shown between 3-25 per cent of people, depending on cultural heritage, experience the soapy flavour of coriander,” explains Professor Russell Keast, from Deakin University’s ​Centre for Advanced Sensory Science.

“The current belief is the variation in what we experience, soapy versus coriander, is due to one olfactory receptor that recognises or responds to aldehydes, a class of chemical compound in foods. Some people have a variation of the receptor which means they experience soapy,” says Keast who says he does like coriander now but didn’t always. “When I was young, I didn’t enjoy coriander although it had nothing to do with a soapy flavour. I just didn’t enjoy it.”

One study that looked at the prevalence of coriander dislike among different ethnocultural groups in a group of 1600 Canadians found that the proportion of subjects classified as disliking the herb was 21 per cent for East Asians, 17 per cent for Caucasians, 14 per cent for those of African descent, 7 per cent for South Asians, 4 per cent for Hispanics and 3 per cent for Middle Eastern subjects.

The authors – who pointed out that more research was needed to see if these numbers would hold true for wider populations – wrote that while genetic differences were the likely explanation, “we cannot rule out the possibility of differences in exposure and use of cilantro in the traditional cuisines of different ethnocultural groups driving differences in preference”. 

Or to put it simply, how much you like it could also be to do with whether you grew up eating a lot of it. Did your Mum or Dad dish up decicious dishes using coriander?

Can you learn to love it?

“There is evidence that dislike is heritable, but perhaps only a small amount is due to genes – it has been estimated about 10 per cent,” says Keast. The rest, he says can be influenced by many factors – how much you’ve been exposed to it, culture, personality. Even the weather when you’re sitting down to eat can affect how much you like a dish, he says.

If you grew up eating dishes that included coriander, and associate it with happy memories or food you liked, then you’re much more likely to be one of those who enjoys it as an adult.

Chef, author and Outback Gourmet host Justine Schofield is one of those who used to hate it when she was a child but now loves it.

“I hated it because it had that soapy, very intense, strong flavour and I felt that it would overpower things. Growing up and broadening my palate, I've now embraced it and absolutely love it. I use it quite a lot in my cooking. Coriander definitely has its time and place in particular things and is definitely not good in certain things, but I do love it now,” says Schofield, who uses it in the barramundi salad she makes in episode 6 of Outback Gourmet. 

If you don’t like fresh coriander, Schofield has a suggestion.

“Coriander seeds and ground coriander have a completely different flavour profile to fresh coriander. I know a lot of people that despise fresh coriander, but if you toast coriander seed and crush it and garnish something with it, like potatoes, oh my gosh. Roast potatoes with crushed coriander, so different. Because it has a lemony flavour as opposed to an intense, soapy ... soapy's not a good word if you like coriander, but that very intense, herbaceous flavour.

“What I do, it’s classic roast potatoes… So, I put lots of olive oil and the juice of one lemon, and crushed coriander, and then mix it together with your hands with lots of salt and then bake them. Desiree potatoes, delicious, or any waxy potatoes, so good!”

Keast suggests people who don’t enjoy the fresh leaves but want to see if they can learn to like it keep trying. Use small amounts in dishes you do like, or paired with ingredients you love, and you may help what he terms your “food liking system” to remember coriander as a positive thing. “But it may take a while and be unpleasant while you experiment!”

Grow your own, and don’t forget the flowers

“By far it is the thing I’m asked most! ‘How do you grow Coriander’, says culinary herb educator and owner-operator Sarah Heath of Basilea Living Herbs and Edible Flowers in Queensland, who has just published a free small e-book about growing coriander on her website. “Mostly it’s because of expectations, people expect one plant to grow into little bushes like parsley and they aren’t the same at all.

“Many plants are needed and many plantings if you love your coriander, nitrogen-rich fertiliser, frequent feeding and regular chopping. Coriander is a short-lived annual, it needs to be cut and fed regularly and it’s okay if it flowers because the whole plant is edible, roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds.

Heath doesn’t usually eat coriander at home – but it’s not because she doesn’t like it. “My husband hates it; it runs in his family.

“Flowers are my favourite part, delicious and lace-like, perfect on a G&T or bridal cake or in a homegrown bunch of flowers.”

So there's a thought, coriander haters - enjoy it as part of a bunch of flowers! And for everyone else, SBS Food has more than 600 recipes for delicious ways to embrace it, or if you'd like to try the middle ground, collections featuring ground coriander and coriander seed

Join Justine Schofield as she cooks with coriander and other fresh ingredients in Outback Gourmet, streaming on SBS On Demand

Embrace the coriander
Prawn toast with yuzu mayonnaise, coriander and mint

This is a superb snack. Top each piece of toast with yuzu mayo and garnish with a fresh herb salad.

Cajun fried chicken wings with coriander dressing

Make your own Cajun spice mix to add a touch of spice to deep-fried chicken wings. The extra spice mix can be stored in a jar in the pantry for up to 6 months.

Corn with smoked paprika and coriander butter

A good, sweet end of summer corn cob just seems made to go with coriander. Here, I’ve jazzed it up with a little smoky paprika and chipotle, but you could simply chargrill the cobs and smother them with butter after they’re cooked for a different effect that still harnesses the flavour of the fire.