Monday, 24 November 2014

Coriander Induced Musings

Parmesan cheese smells of vomit. It actually does, and especially the ready-grated stuff. That's because the two things share some volatile chemicals that create aroma. However, even though smell and taste are inextricably linked, the human brain, a master of cognitive dissonance, is perfectly happy to focus on the delicious savoury umami taste and very few people dislike parmesan cheese. The British like it so much that the Italians can't believe how much they use -- more is consumed in Britain than in Italy. It's not the only cheese that has a pungent pong either, as anyone who has taken a Pont l'Eveque home in their suitcase after their holiday in Normandy will know (ahem...). Quite a few highly prized cheeses share volatiles with stinky feet. Whether you eat and enjoy them or not is a matter of exposure to them ie whether you are used to them or not.

About a fifth of people of northern European origin utterly loathe coriander leaf (known to you by its Spanish name cilantro if you are from the US). I remember being told years ago that the Vietnamese word for coriander was the same as their word for stink bug. I've been unable to verify that, but I have discovered that the word coriander itself comes from an ancient Greek word for stinking bug and that the ancient Greeks were very familiar with the herb (and, undoubtedly, stinking bugs...).

A Hawthorn Shield Bug Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale, an archetypal stink bug, ambling about in the Forest of Loches. 
Many smells come from a group of volatile organic chemicals called aldehydes. Many people, like me, will describe the smell of coriander as like that of stink bugs. It turns out that coriander shares an aldehyde called trans Decenal 2 with stink bugs. It's an aroma that occurs naturally in foods as diverse as milk, tea and caviar as well as coriander, carrots and pork, and has been synthesised or extracted for use in the food and cosmetics industries. It is described as a fatty orange rose aldehydic floral green and the taste is fatty fried citrus.

Some people who think coriander smells like stink bugs loathe the stuff. Others, like me, love it. The difference is how our smell receptors respond to certain aldehydes. For some people, some stinky aldehydes seem to overwhelm everything else. Simon appears to be one of these people. For him, lavender smells of  stale sweat, not a mix of lovely astringent herbal scents. Likewise he hates rosemary, sage, cloves, cinnamon, saffron and nutmeg. Neither of us are keen on mint of any sort.

Simon is one of a small group of people who say that coriander tastes metallic. He has the same reaction to parsley. This group of people seem to be very sensitive to bitter tastes. Simon will taste the bitter elements in many green vegetables that I don't even notice, or perhaps enjoy. I like a good combination of bitter and sweet, such as good honey has or intense dark chocolate. Endive doesn't have much to recommend it though, it has to be said.

A packet of coriander from the supermarket. 
Auchan in Chatellerault is one of the few places apart from the specialist Asian supermarket Paris Store in Tours Nord that  I can usually rely on getting coriander around here. Sometimes they even have big bunches.
The French for stink bug is punaise (='stinker'). A French person will often tell you that punaises smell like stale almonds. Frankly, I don't know what stale almonds smell like, but presumably that cyanidey odour that too much almond essence gives you.

These sorts of very intense differences in perception of  taste and smell appear to be genetic, involving two genes linked to bitter taste and one to pungent flavours. Nearly half of Europeans have two copies of one of these genes, some have none. A significant number of these people report that coriander tastes soapy. Describing coriander as tasting soapy seems to be the 21st century version of describing them as smelling of stink bugs. I guess fewer people are exposed to stink bugs these days. As usual though, genetics isn't the whole story. Cultural background makes a huge difference, and for coriander lovers or haters this is possibly more significant. If you come from an Hispanic, Near Eastern or South-east Asian background you are much more likely than not to love coriander despite any genetic indicators. Like the cheeses, it's a matter of exposure.


  1. "Parmesan cheese smells of vomit."....
    I have always called it "essence of sock"...
    personally, I don't think it smells like vomit...
    but we all smell things differently, as you've posted.
    And I wholeheartedly agree about pre-grated parmesan...
    it smells foul....
    tastes delissshh!!

    And in the UK...
    with the exception of good cheese shops...
    you can't seem to be able to purchase Breeeee or Come-on-Bert that hasn't passed its smell by date...
    and upon being bailed out by the customer...
    tries to get home fast!!
    You can even buy gimicky cheese cages to trap it in!!

    To me, coriander smells of freshness...
    all clean and crisp...
    that might be me picking up the metallic tang?

    And I often wonder about:::>
    Who tasted the first Durian fruit...
    someone with a cold?
    And how did chillies become acceptable...
    nay, essential??

  2. Tim: Maybe you are picking up on the citrus elements in coriander.

  3. I love coriander and as for parmesan I can take it or leave it. Some people apparently can't detect the smell of freesias, poor souls. I can't taste angostura bitters but I don't count that as a loss. P.

  4. I really feel sorry for people who don't like endives, cilantro, beets, turnips, kale, collard greens, mint, rosemary, or whatever else. Not being about to enjoy all these flavors really makes life a poorer experience.

  5. Oh, and cooked carrots. I've seen people gag on those. But you know what they say in French: On ne discûte pas des goûts et des couleurs. Et il faut de tout pour faire un monde.

    I agree about exposure when it comes to foods like cheeses and even beer, which I like now but didn't like for many years. Taste evolves over time, if you give yourself a chance.

  6. Mmmmm... "fatty fried citrus"....

  7. PG: When I could buy parmesan from a dealer in London who was importing it direct from a producer I definitely went for parmesan -- the good stuff is really something. If I'm just buying from the supermarket I tend to go for grana padano which is cheaper and makes a perfectly good sub.

    Ken: I think that's only one way of looking at it. For one thing, it's like pet ownership -- people with pets are convinced that pets enhance their lives and they are the happier for it and those without pets are losing out. The actual evidence (as opposed to the received wisdom) suggests that both are equally happy. The other thing is that it may be that these people have a much more positive experience with other flavours that we do. Anyway, endive and white asparagus -- meh! :-)

    Kids learn to like foods on exposure. The magic number apparently is 7 or 8 tries for most people. And anyway, many people dislike foods for their texture rather than taste.

  8. Auty: That's the technical description. Food flavours are a bit of a black art, just like the related business of perfumery.

  9. Thank you, Susan, for this fascinating post.

    I'm fortunate to have been gifted with a keen sense of smell even though my olfactory system was less than perfect during my smoking years. Now, 35 years after I quit, I can smell flowers such as iris, violet, wisteria... I agree with Pauline, I pity those people who can't enjoy the delicate smell of freesias!

    As for food, I don't think I knew about coriander/cilantro before I lived in Southern California. I liked it right away. I also love parsley. On the other hand, Parmesan is not my favorite. Even though I don't mind it, whenever a recipe calls for it, I use instead Gruyère, Comté or Beaufort. As Ken said, more or less, À chacun son cochon de goût! LOL

  10. chm: a good Beaufort would be a reasonable substitute for parmesan. Not supermarket stuff though -- way too rubbery, not the same thing at all.

  11. I guess it irks me when people make an emphatic point of telling me how disgusting they think some particular food product is. Why do they think I would be interested to know what they dislike and hear all the details about howmuch and why?

  12. Ken: That sort of thing really only irks if they are also indicating that they think you are weird for liking something they loathe, or if the list of things they dislike is a mile long and they are just tedious princesses (especially if you know that their favourite food is MacDo). Sometimes these strong likes and dislikes can be really fascinating and you have to wonder why people are so different and what it is really like for them. What irks me is when people overstate their dislike, turning something that they just don't fancy into something inedible.

  13. Going with Ken's "taste changes as you get older"...
    I agree...
    I used to hate parsnips...
    too scented for my palette...
    but either Ken is spot on...
    or they've lost their power??
    Unlikely, the latter, we grow Guernsey... perhaps the most famous commercial type and aeons old...
    I have, in fact, just discovered that it goes back to pre-1826...
    and is French!
    And you should see the MONSTER that Pauline grew this year...
    weighs in at over a kilo and a half...
    we've just scoffed the last one [750gms] in a Hot-Pot that lasted us for three meals!!
    The monster looks like it will see us through the week...

  14. "we've just scoffed the last one"...
    That is, the last one lifted...
    I caught it with the fork, so it wouldn't keep.

  15. Susan, I agree with you. The worst thing is to have somebody grimace or make/pull a face when you offer them something like a cooked carrot or turnip. Seems rude to me.

    Tim, there were two things I didn't like when I was younger (besides beer, which for me is a partially acquired taste): celery (the stalks) because I thought the flavor overpowered all other flavors, and ham (American) because it always seemed to salty to me. Now I like both. I think my tastes changed greatly when I was in my early 20s, just when I started coming and spending long periods in France. I learned how to cook back then. Thus my love of so many specifically French foods.

    Off topic: I'm watching a man on make British-style flapjacks. Why in the world is that called a flapjack? It doesn't flap the way a pancake would.

  16. Tim: Parsnips are an acquired taste for me too, just because I don't remember ever having one in Australia. I like them as a component of mixed mash and roasted are quite good if I can manage not to burn them to a crisp. And speaking of crisps, they make great ones. What I never acquired a taste for was curried parsnip soup, apparently a British staple if many of my former colleagues were to be believed.

    Ken: Food has so much baggage. Many people are very insistent when they offer food and it can be difficult to refuse politely. I particularly dislike the line 'it's good for you' as a coercion tactic. On the other hand it is difficult, after having invested time and effort into cooking a meal, to not be irritated or hurt when it is spurned.

    Many people with strong food dislikes feel they have to bang on about it because if it is something others adore they are simply not believed and they are in danger of eating a meal that is ruined as far as they are concerned. On the other hand, if one is an omnivore cook, the tyranny of the minority in a group can be frustratingly restricting.

    Flapjacks: I've no idea either :-) They are another thing I'd never encountered until I moved to the UK I don't think.

  17. "There's no disputing about tastes." The first cilantro I tasted came out of my own garden. I expected to like it but no, just the opposite. I avoided it till I tasted a lemon-grass beef dish with a strong cilantro flavor. Why did I enjoy this when previously I hadn't? I think that particular restaurant sweetens the dish a little and that mitigates whatever I object to in cilantro. Sugar--the original gateway drug.

  18. Until you just wrote it down, Susan, I'd never heard of curried parsnip soup....
    and I have now "bean" through all the cookery books that might have a recipe... including the two soup books... nada!!

    In the UK, Flapjacks are an oat bar [aka: granola bar in the US] made with oats and golden syrup as the base... plus whatever else you want to throw in that might work...
    a very good way of using up stale mooozli!!

    Or are you refering to Scotch Pancakes... aka: Griddle cakes or drop scones?... as Ken is writing about it not flapping the way a pancake does.

    In the UK they are not refered to as flapjacks...
    it is an American term [according to Wackypedia, anyway]

  19. Tim: The Covent Garden Soup company do a curried Parsnip soup, so it must be reasonably well known and popular.

    The flapjacks in question are oat bars.

  20. Oat bars, yes, that's what the man on TV was making. I just don't understand why those would be called flapjacks. Mystère...

    As for having made food for people, I can't do anything about whether they like it or not. But why would somebody so clearly express their dislike without even having tasted something? Et la politesse dans tout ça ? Oh well...

  21. Ken...
    you've got hiccups...
    too many flapjacks too quickly....??

    Based on your comment tho'...
    Guinness ran an advert on those lines...
    Man in street interview:
    Can't stand Guinness...
    never tried it!!"
    It ran for a long time...

    "I just don't understand why those would be called flapjacks."...
    because we've always called them that...
    the OED reckons that it was in use as early as the beginning of the Seventeenth Century...
    Shakespeare refers to flapjack in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, but this does not really mean that he thought it was a middle eastern dish, just a common English dessert of the time that would be understood by his audience.

  22. I've deleted Ken's duplicate comments.

  23. Carolyn: Interesting experience. Having the coriander served in a dish by someone who knew exactly how to combine the herb with other flavours obviously did the trick.

  24. I don't know if Tim will ever see this, but here's what Wikipedia says about British flapjacks. The term came to mean oat bar only in the 1930s. Before that, a flapjack was a pancake, as it is still in the U.S. Read:


    The Oxford English Dictionary records the word flapjack as being used as early as the beginning of the 17th century, but at this time it seems to have been a flat tart or pan-cake.[1] Shakespeare refers to flapjack in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, but this is one of the many anachronisms in his historical plays and does not suggest that he thought it was a middle eastern dish, merely a common English dessert of the time:

    "Come, thou shant go home, and we'll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo'er puddings and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome."

    Act II Scene I

    Later, flapjack would be used to describe something similar to an apple flan, but it is not until 1935 that the word is first used to describe a food made of oats.[1] While in the UK this usage has mostly superseded earlier recipes, in North America, "flapjack" still refers to pancakes.[1]

  25. interesting comments on this thread....i'm fortunate in having a well-stocked herb garden for most of the year next to the house.....we made it into raised bed and its growing profusely in the spring and summer.We also have the ability to try out new flavour combinations for our guests,common-sense tells us to try 'unusual' pairings for canapes,then if successful we incorporate them into the main menu.Because we always ask guests for any dietary requirements we avoid any nose-turning faces form 'fussy' guests.

  26. And here's another comment,friends of ours are very fussy about 'new food'...several times the comment...'i don't like that' was made even before tasting,so the subterfuge i took was to make a chocolate and beetroot cake and not disclose all the ingredients till after it was eaten..!!Now our friend makes it regularly for herself..!!

  27. IC: not disclosing ingredients doesn't always work. Some people are really sensitive and can genuinely detect the disliked item. Asking doesn't always work either, if they forget to tell you about some slightly obscure item they don't eat and you use it. It's a minefield all round.