National Geographic : 2010 Sep
PHOTO: MARK THIESSEN, NGM STAFF SCIENCE Herbaceous Debate Cilantro is one polarizing herb. The seemingly innocuous staple of Mexican, Asian, and Indian cuisines has become a fresh ingredient in news stories and inspired passion-fueled blogs. Fans liken its notes to those of citrus; haters say they smack of soap. Whichever side of the produce aisle you're on, solidarity abounds. Yet it isn't simply a matter of taste. Accord- ing to Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Sense Center, it's actually about flavor, which the brain perceives based on a complex combination of taste, smell, heat, texture. In the case of cilantro, Wysocki has a hunch that genes play a role too. His ongoing study of twins shows that identical ones have the same reaction to it far more often than fraternal ones do. The genetic verdict is still out, but one thing is certain: In California, where annual records are carefully kept, cilantro production has doubled in the past decade. Agricultural economist Gary Lucier says Americans are eating on average at least a third of a pound of it a year, likely due to our increasingly diverse culinary scene. Does that taste like victory, or work you into a lather? ---Catherine Barker Cilantro is the leaf of the coriander plant. Detractors say even one small sprig tastes strongly of soap.