Harold McGee has done it again! The newest "Curious Cook" column -- "Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault" -- provides a neuroscientist's explanation for why many people deeply hate the smell and (if they get far enough to taste it) the taste of cilantro. He cites Julia Child, for example, as saying that she would throw a sprig of cilantro on the floor if she found it in her food.
Do some people have an inborn ability to detect odors or tastes in cilantro that an appreciator of the herb can't perceive? I, like McGee, was expecting a genetic explanation. That is evidently not the reason. Cilantro, he notes, contains some flavor elements that resemble soap and maybe even bugs. It also has many herb-like flavors. Your collective personal experiences evidently determine how important and yucky you find the soap aroma. If you live in a cilantro eating culture and associate it with childhood food memories, maybe the fresh-herb notes will charm you. If cilantro was a new strange item at some point, you might be overwhelmed and disgusted by the soapy element. So some people hate it and others do not.
"When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability," is the neuroscientist's explanation. "If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs."
Considering how neuroscience can be misused in so many ways (as documented frequently in my favorite blog, Language Log), I find this insight to be really wonderful in its simplicity.