Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap To Some People?

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iStock

by Sophie Harrington

Surprisingly controversial, cilantro (or coriander, as it's known in other parts of the world) has sparked a level of vitriol unheard of amongst other herbs. From the online community at IHateCilantro.com to the “I hate coriander. Worst herb ever” Facebook group, it might be the most polarizing leaf in the culinary world. What is it about cilantro that makes some people describe it as tasting like soapy pennies, moldy shoes, and cat pee, while others rave about its fresh flavor?

Despite being well liked in many other cultures, cilantro has historically been a controversial herb in the western kitchen. It produces a specific subset of aldehydes, organic compounds that can provide highly pungent odors when highly expressed. It’s these aldehydes that are most likely responsible for the soapy taste and smell many people associate with cilantro. Yet these aldehydes also provide the fresh, citrusy aroma that others rave about. So why are some people unable to taste the good side of cilantro?

Disliking cilantro isn’t a recent phenomenon. In a 2001 paper, University of Otago anthropologist Helen Leach found that cilantro was treated as an unwanted herb in European cuisine from the 16th century onward, and very often disparaged for its foul taste and smell.

Leach suggests that this dislike may have stemmed from a misleading interpretation of the word’s etymology, itself stemming from the Greek koris, for bug. Sharing a similar shape to bedbugs, the newly unpopular herb may have been associated with their foul smell. This negative association may have been enough to enhance the less palatable flavors in cilantro, leading Victorians to turn their noses up at the herb.

The use of cilantro in many non-western forms of cooking may have fed into long-standing European stereotypes. By associating cilantro with unclean, fetid bedbugs, many forms of non-western cuisine were tarred in association. It was not until after World War II, when it became fashionable to try new cuisines at restaurants and even branch out in the kitchen at home, that cilantro begin to re-enter the western culinary canon.

A study by Lilli Mauer and Ahmed El-Sohemy at the University of Toronto found that while 17 percent of Caucasians disliked the taste of cilantro, only 4 percent of Hispanics and 3 percent of people of Middle Eastern descent disliked the herb. Mexican cuisine, for example, is known to make full use of the herb and it's a staple spice in many Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines, too. These groups similarly appear to be those least likely to dislike it. Perhaps growing up eating cilantro is enough to gain immunity to its less palatable aromas and tastes.

This might seem like vindication to those who suggest a dislike of cilantro is just being fussy, but more recent studies have found specific genetic differences associated with the taste. A study by the personal genomics company 23andMe identified a small DNA variation in a cluster of olfactory receptor genes that is strongly associated with the perception of a “soapy” taste in cilantro. This may be traced to the OR6A2 gene, an olfactory receptor able to bind many of the aldehydes implicated in the herb's very particular smell. Perhaps those with a specific variation in the gene are particularly sensitive to its soapiness.

Studies on twins have also bolstered the suggestion that cilantro preference has a genetic component. Preliminary research by Charles Wysocki at the Monell Chemical Senses Center suggests that while 80 percent of identical twins share similar taste profiles for cilantro, only 42 percent of fraternal twins do. If the genetic component does play a significant role, it may be that certain cultures are predisposed to use cilantro in the cooking because they’re genetically predisposed to like it, rather than the other way around.

That’s some good news for cilantro-phobes at least, since no one can blame you for your genes. Still, it doesn’t make the horror of accidentally getting a bite of the green stuff any more bearable for them.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

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Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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Why Does Santa Claus Live at the North Pole?

allanswart/iStock via Getty Images
allanswart/iStock via Getty Images

As children settle in for a restless night’s sleep this Christmas Eve, they’ll no doubt be picturing Santa Claus on his way from the snowy ’scapes of the North Pole to deliver them Star Wars LEGO sets, Frozen 2 dolls, and everything else on their wish list. They picture Santa at the North Pole, of course, because they’ve seen him living there in numerous Christmas movies, books, and television specials, from perennial Rankin/Bass programs to more modern classics like 2003’s Elf.

While it might seem a little more magical if we told you that nobody really knows why Santa lives there, there is a relatively traceable paper trail: The first known reference to Santa’s North Pole residence is in an 1866 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly.

According to Smithsonian.com, famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast—who was also responsible for establishing the donkey and elephant as the symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively—first started creating Harper’s Weekly Christmas cartoons as Union propaganda for the Civil War in January 1863. Borrowing imagery from Clement Clarke Moore’s (alleged) 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (which you’d probably recognize as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Nast developed the white-bearded, rosy-cheeked, all-around jolly guy that we know today, and showed him passing out gifts to Union soldiers, climbing into a chimney as a soldier’s wife prays, and more.

harper's weekly santa claus at camp by thomas nast
Thomas Nast, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The cartoons became so popular that Nast branched out from his source material and began inventing his own details to add to Saint Nick—like where he’s from, for example. A December 29, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly debuted a multi-image cartoon titled “Santa Claus and His Works,” which includes a small inscription along the circular border that reads Santa Claussville, N.P. According to The New York Times, we don’t know exactly why Nast chose the North Pole (or if it was even his own idea), but there are a few reasons it made sense for the time period.

For one, Santa Claus was already widely associated with snow because most of the publishing companies producing Christmas cards and other content were located in New England, where it actually snows around Christmas. Furthermore, the 1840s and 1850s were partly characterized by high-profile—and ill-fated, in the Franklin expedition's case—attempts to explore the Arctic, and the public was generally interested in the mysterious, poorly-charted region. Because the Pole was unoccupied, Santa and his elves could toil the year away without interference from prying eyes; and, because it was unclaimed, Santa could remain a bastion of benevolence for every nation.

merry old santa claus by thomas nast
"Merry Old Santa Claus," perhaps Nast's most famous illustration of Santa, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.
Thomas Nast, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though we’ll likely never know Nast’s personal rationale behind placing Santa Claus in the North Pole, one thing’s for sure: At this point, it’s hard to imagine him living anywhere else. It’s also hard to imagine him riding a broom, wielding a gun, or smoking cigarettes (find out the stories behind those early Santas here).

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