THE old Latin proverb “there’s no accounting for taste” endures because it describes a universal human trait. The foods that some of us love are the same foods that others abhor.
Take cilantro, also known as coriander or Chinese parsley. The leaves are commonly used to lighten dishes with freshness. But some disdain the flavor, saying it tastes like soap.
Our love-it-or-leave-it attitudes toward certain foods sometimes originate in childhood.
We can grow up disliking certain foods forced upon us by well-meaning parents.
Or, we can experience epiphanies, where foods we once despised suddenly become tasty and desirable.
This week, we explore some of the foods that cause a passionate great divide in taste.
In Chinese, cilantro is called xiangcai, or “fragrant vegetable.”
Julia Child, a renowned chef credited with introducing French cuisine to the American public, once railed against the herb.
“Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all,” she told a TV interview in 2002. “They’re both green herbs, but they have kind of a dead taste to me.”
The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that the word “coriander” derives from the Greek word for “bedbug” and that the aroma “has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes.”
Cilantro is popular in many cuisines, from Asia to Mexico. Here, handfuls of chopped cilantro are often added to cold salads and soups to freshen the flavor.
Those who really despise the herb often have to specify “no cilantro” when ordering food out. That saves them the trouble of trying to pick each individual leaf out of a dish. When the taste of cilantro is infused with other ingredients, a diner may just have to give a dish a pass.
“To me, cilantro is like a weapon of destruction,” said Yuki Song, who always picks the leaves out of dishes she’s served. “It has a pungent, stinking taste that I find very discomforting.”
According to the science journal “Nature,” a dislike of cilantro can be traced to genes encoding odor and taste receptors. It stated that “dislike of coriander has long been thought to be a partly inherited trait and not just an artifact of cultural practices and exposure to the herb.”
In our online world, cilantro haters can share their aversion on websites and chat groups created for just that purpose.
IHateCilantro.com posts comments from users who variously describe the herb as tasting like wet jeans, mud, rotten eggs and dandelions. The website also sells related merchandise, like T-shirts imprinted with “I Hate Cilantro.”
On the flip side, other Chinese websites post recipes of dishes enhanced by cilantro, like fried peanuts, omelets and pork-filled dumplings. There are even recipes for unique creations like cilantro chiffon cake.
In Taiwanese cuisine, a popular sweet and savory snack is made with two scoops of ice cream, fresh cilantro and peanut crumbles wrapped in a Vietnamese spring roll.
Yuxingcao, an herb that translates as “fishy-smelling grass” in Chinese, is another food nightmare for many.
In English, it is also known as lizard tail, fishwort and bishop’s weed. The unappetizing monikers make it easy to understand why it was included in a popular online list of the 10 most disgusting vegetables, alongside bitter gourd and cilantro.
Fish mint thrives in humid climates. In China, it is more of a traditional medicinal herb than a culinary ingredient, but people in Yunnan Province especially enjoy the root of the fish mint plant as a vegetable in salads, stir-fries and even soups.
Fried potato is a popular street food in Yunnan, and if topping doesn’t include freshly chopped fish mint, nobody will buy it. When eating hotpots in the southwestern province, chopped fish mint is a must in dipping sauces.
The fish mint is also sometimes added to tea because it is said to soothe coughs and sore throat.
Known as xiangchun, or “fragrant toon,” the fresh leaves of the Toona sinensis tree are popular with some people as a spring vegetable. Aficionados describe its taste as aromatic and fresh. Detractors said it is smelly.
One of the most popular ways to enjoy the freshly picked leaves is adding them to scrambled eggs and pancakes.
To better evoke toon’s unique fragrance, mix boiled tofu with scalded toon and season with sesame oil and salt. For extra aroma, splash a few tablespoons of hot oil infused with the flavors of Sichuan peppercorns.
Because Chinese toon is available only for very short time, some households pickle the leaves to serve with congee or steamed buns for breakfast.
The shitake mushroom, which is especially popular in Asia, has a stronger fragrance and taste than other common edible mushrooms. Its Chinese name xianggu translates into “fragrant mushroom.”
Shitake mushrooms have an invasive flavor that can easily dominate a dish. A stir-fry of shitake mushrooms with Chinese bok choy is a popular dish in many places around China. The strong green vegetable balances out the taste of the mushrooms.
“I don’t like shitake mushrooms because the flavor is so strong and unpleasant,” said Wang Lin. “It overpowers all the other ingredients and makes everything taste the same,”
One can purchase both fresh and dried shitake mushrooms. The fresh ones are lighter in taste. The dried variety has a stronger flavor and requires soaking in water to restore the meaty texture. Shitake mushrooms are often added to stews, soups and stir-fries.
Durian is regarded as the king of fruits in Southeast Asia, but its strong odor, often likened to rotten eggs, repels many people. The fruit is harvested from large tropical trees widely cultivated across Southeast Asia. Some of the best cultivars, like the Musang King, come from Malaysia. Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are also major durian exporters.
Durian’s custard-like flesh is creamy and sweet. Those who can get past the odor love its silky texture and taste.
“I used to stay away from the durian shelf in fruit stores because the strong smell made the air suffocating,” said Chen Lu, who was ordering a crepe roll filled with durian in a dessert shop. “But after trying it a few times, I came to love the fruit. I don’t find the odor off-putting anymore.”
The first step toward liking the fruit often comes from eating light durian desserts, like puffs and éclairs with durian cream filling, or durian ice cream. Some pizzerias have come up with a dessert pizza made with durian that caters to hardcore fans of the fruit. The creamy durian flesh and melted mozzarella seem like natural partners.
Durian is not limited to desserts. The hard, spiky shell and the large kernel inside can also be used to stew chicken or pork ribs with goji berries.