Why Does Coriander Make Me Feel Sick and Angry: an Investigation

“But you’re Asian! Aren’t you meant to, like, eat it with every meal?”

This is what everyone says (or nervously implies) when I reveal my hatred for coriander. And sure, the rest of my family can eat mouthfuls of the stuff and all my friends hide behind their menus when I demand my dishes be coriander-free, but I don’t care. I hate it. I’ve always hated coriander and I always will and I find that looking at a single sprig is as nauseating as watching someone cut their fingernails on a crowded train.

It had been a couple of decades since I’d tried it, though, and I wondered if maybe my taste buds had matured. After all, I’ve recently learned to tolerate oysters and even blue cheese. So I hit up my local Vietnamese joint for some pho with extra coriander on the side—just to see what it tasted like and to explore my repulsion.

The food came out fast, covered in nightmarishly green foliage. I leaned forward to sniff the leaves and the smell was sharp and tangy. The first mouthful was already painful; there was a burst of bitterness and a wave of something rotten and soapy. After a few chews, the tartness intensified and I just couldn’t bring myself to swallow. So out of my mouth and into the tissue it went.

What is wrong with me? I wondered. Or more specifically, what is wrong with everyone else?

Scott Morrison infamously declared his love for coriander during the last federal election, while some lunatic in Kuala Lumpur now serves coriander ice cream. But apparently I’m not alone in my rage. According to a 2012 study from the University of Toronto, between 3 and 21 percent of young adults living in Canada dislike coriander. Even the Barefoot Contessa, otherwise known as Food Network legend Ina Garten, won’t go anywhere near it. In 2017 she told a Munchies podcast: “I know people love it, and you can add it to the recipe. I just hate it. To me, it’s so strong and it actually tastes like soap to me, but it’s so strong it overpowers every other flavour.”

1571131504460-DSC02073

Pure yuck

Someone else who hates coriander is a fellow Sydney-sider named Jack Bailey. He started the Facebook page I Hate Coriander in December 2013, which has since amassed more than 250,000 followers.

When I got in touch with Jack, he explained he created the page after a work lunch at a Thai joint in Sydney’s CBD. “Our dishes came out garnished with an amount of coriander that can only be compared to a small farm on our plates,” he explained via email. “We instantly decided that we needed to create a Facebook page and try and band together with fellow coriander haters.”

In terms of analytics, the page at one stage grew from 10,000 to 100,000 likes in just six months.

“One night, I posted a simple photo of me giving the middle finger to a bunch of coriander that my housemates at the time (I moved out pretty quickly after) had brought home to cook with… and I woke up to close to 2,000 new page likes.”

Jack says his deep-seated aversion to coriander runs in the family, with the exception of his weird twin brother who “couldn’t speak more highly of it, and has subsequently been disowned by the entire family.” (Jack explains that he actually had the last laugh after putting an “I Hate Coriander” sticker on his brother’s car. “He was really confused why people were honking at him and people giving him thumbs up at the lights,” he said.)

But Jack’s passion doesn’t stop at his Facebook page: he’s also the genius behind International Coriander Hatred Day, celebrated on February 24. There’s no actual meaning behind the date, says Jack, because every day should be coriander-free.

1571131565589-DSC02098

Me testing my boundaries

After giggling at our shared derision I decided to hit up an expert to get some facts. There were questions that needed to be answered—namely: why do I hate coriander when so many others don’t?

Dr Alison Jones is a food biology expert from the University of New South Wales. She says there could be a genetic reason behind some people’s coriander intolerance.

“Coriander has a series of aldehyde compounds, in particular the E-2-alkenals which are often described as soapy or fatty,” she explained. “Genetic variation does play a significant role in our chemosensory perception, but this is only part of why we choose the foods we eat.”

Dr Jones explained that studies have identified a single genetic variation in our olfactory receptor genes, which can lead a significant association with soapy taste in coriander—but noted this doesn’t account for every case. While she personally loves the herb, she says we’ll never understand exactly why we like or dislike a food, as there are so many different factors.

Even other polarising foods—like hakari, the fermented shark meat eaten in Iceland, or the gamey taint of pork, which some people liken to sweaty urine—can’t be nailed to specific genes.

“I’m not really sure, but I would guess that repeated exposure habits, cultural identity, and social elements could come into play,” Dr Jones explained.

Armed with a bit more knowledge about coriander, I decide to give the weed a second chance. Perhaps attributing my hatred for the herb to some chemicals could help me see it in another light.

So I went back to the same restaurant, ordered the same meal with the same amount of coriander… and found it just as tangy, yet somehow soapier. I struggled to eat the mouthful and finally settled on a half-centimetre stem. It was crunchy, and bitter, and all-consumingly foul.

As restaurants adjust to all sorts of dietary requirements like gluten and dairy, the same should be done for the glaringly green garnish. You wouldn’t cover someone’s meal in grated parmesan without asking, so why would you do the same with coriander? All I’m asking for is a little more transparency on menus, perhaps some segregated areas in restaurants, and maybe just a bit more common sense knocked into the world.

Follow Naeun Kim on Twitter