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Cilantro by Andy Shenk
June 23, 2012, 3:49 pm
Filed under: Reflections | Tags:

Cilantro. Kinza in Russian. My mother frequently bought the weed from the fresh-air market in Derbent, wrapping it in a plastic bag to transport with all our other groceries on the two-hour bus ride up the Caucasus Mountains to the Tabasaran village, Bookhnog, where we made our home. The juicy tangerines and vafli that mom and dad brought back from the city delighted us children. Vafli: Creamy, crunchy bars of sugar and chocolate paste. I would peel the layers back one by one, then scrape the chocolate filling into my mouth with my teeth. My younger brother, Jonny, and I did not look upon cilantro so favorably, however.

Over the following week, its overwhelming odor flooded salads and rice dishes that my mother prepared in the kitchen at the front of the house. Even when my brother and I insisted that she serve the herb separately, our offended nostrils gained reprieve for only a short time. Either she forgot to leave it out the next day or we ate dinner at a friend’s house soon thereafter. To my mother’s credit, our neighbors’ cooking made her use of kinza appear negligible.

For those fortunate enough to have never tasted cilantro, I will attempt to briefly describe the experience.

A beautiful, colorful dish of fresh vegetables appears on the table in front of you. Exhausted by a day in Russian-language school, homework, and village chores, you greedily seize your spoon and dig into the feast. Before the first bite reaches your mouth, however, warning bells begin to sound. A peculiar smell wafts from the spoon: sterile, harsh, and dominating, belying the rich variety of flavors you had initially anticipated. Undaunted, you begin to chew. To your amazement, the tomato and cucumber salad, straight from the garden, tastes only of mouthwash. The vegetables are forgotten, buried beneath the cilantro. Though the effect is not so strong as to cause you to spit the food out, the dish is ruined. Oh well, don’t lose heart completely. Mom’s a good cook most of the time – at least there will likely be some tasty bread and soup to make up for the disappointment.

See, the trouble with cilantro isn’t so much that it’s intrinsically rotten. Rather, it’s that the diced green leaves, barely visible on a bed of rice or vegetables, overwhelm every other flavor. Who wants to be reminded of mouthwash at dinner time?

Cilantrophobia notwithstanding, I pride myself on culinary flexibility. For many years, my distaste for cilantro proved an effective exception to the rule. I could boast that I enjoyed eating just about anything, except, of course, cilantro. Most of my friends liked cilantro and so I enjoyed being different by flaunting my passionate hatred for the herb.

After a while, I found an even more devious use for cilantro antipathy. I’d initially express my disgust when served a dish prepared with cilantro. After drawing the sympathy of those seated near me (a dislike for cilantro, after all, has been shown to have genetic roots), I then demonstrated my character by forcing down a generous serving, cilantro and all.

Unfortunately, my hubris in thinking I could manipulate cilantro to my own ends finally caught up to me. To my horror, while eating a Chipotle burrito stuffed with cilantro-flavored rice two months ago, I found that the taste wasn’t so bad as I remembered it. Rather than suffocate my taste buds, the cilantro added an enjoyable new layer of taste to the other ingredients. Too much exposure to any evil ultimately dulls the conscience, I suppose. When I admitted to my wife what had just happened inside my mouth, she couldn’t believe it. My dislike for cilantro had been so profound that she had grown to hate it as well, in solidarity with me. Jonny, my younger brother, also took the news hard, refusing to believe that his older brother was capable of such betrayal. Though shaken myself, I did see it as tit-for-tat. Ever since he’d boarded the Harry Potter bandwagon a few years back, I’d had to stand alone as the only devoted Tolkien apologist in the family.

I wish I’d never learned to fancy cilantro. I could attempt to erase this time in my life, and pretend to once again despise the stuff…No, I’ll be honest and admit that it’s alright. Still, it’s difficult to leave behind a decades-long hatred, all because of my fickle taste buds.