Cilantro, the Essence of Insect

I don’t like cilantro. This opinion comes as a surprise to some people, and I understand. They just don’t realize that it tastes like caterpillars. I don’t condemn.

I remember all too clearly when I first discovered the horror that is cilantro. I was twenty years old and finishing up a six-month internship at a law firm. My four housemates and I got handed a major project the day before it was due, and had stayed up nearly all night to finish it. It was a success, and we were minor celebrities among those in the know. At the end of the day, I was looking forward to returning to our townhouse, eating a sandwich, and quietly basking in the glow of accomplishment until I fell asleep.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t live life to the fullest or anything. It’s just that, um, well… I didn’t. But my friends did.

Slap-happy and adrenalized, they decided it was the perfect time to drive through unknown parts of town to find a little Vietnamese restaurant. I’d never had Vietnamese food at the time. Actually, considering I grew up in a small town in the Deep South and wouldn’t touch any food I didn’t have a long and personal relationship with, it would take a long time to list the types of food I hadn’t eaten.

But I generally go along with the flow, especially when I’m one of three people crammed into the back seat.  We found the restaurant and looked over the menu. I felt like I was trying to read everything in High Bograx of the Outer Centauri Nebula. Nothing made sense. I finally saw a translation that said something about beef and soup, and it was spelled “pho.” I could say that. I ordered that.

Pho — at least the version they brought me — is a thin soup with strips of beef, heavily flavored with fresh herbs.

One fresh herb.

Cilantro.

Possibly I’d had cilantro before, but not to know it. I ate a few spoonfuls of the soup, and was utterly horrified. I had never tasted anything so revolting as pho. Beef with bugs. Soap soup. Creme de caterpillar. I was exhausted and hungry, my introverted soul aching for solitude, and all I had to eat was… this… mess.

It took me a long time to stop using the word “pho” as a curse word.

I found out later that I’ve got a genetic excuse for disliking cilantro, as discussed in this article. And like the article says, it’s possible to get used to the taste. I’ve discovered the stuff lurking in Mexican, Indian, and Thai food. If it’s there, trust me, I’ll find it. Massaman curry infused with smashed stinkbugs, coming up! After several years, my utter detestation of cilantro has eroded into mere vehement dislike.

But I can recognize the leaves at fifty paces. And I haven’t eaten pho since that day.

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