A few years ago (fine, it was almost eight years ago, because time really is a flat circle and I am a jabillion years old), the New York Times ran a very widely read story about a very polarizing herb. Lo, the Grey Lady came bearing excellent news for the outspoken loathers of a certain bright green that makes Latin American and Asian dishes jump off the plate: “Cilantro haters,” She intoned, “it’s not your fault.” Apparently, some people (not me) are genetically hard-wired to associate the smell of cilantro with bedbugs or soap.
These people are predominantly ethnic Europeans such as myself (clearly, I was spared). And among those are Germans, to whom Many Americans in the mid-20th Century referred as Krauts, after sauerkraut, the ubiquitous side dish made of fermented cabbage that is, so far as I can discern, the only thing that makes it possible for any German to shit.
Kraut (KROWT!) means cabbage, yes—but it also means “herb” in general. The plural is Kräuter (KROY-tur), and in traditional German cuisine, it usually refers to one or more of the following: thyme (Thymian, TOOM-ee-un), marjoram (which I can’t even pronounce in English), parsley (Petersilie, PEH-tur-ZEE-LEE-uh, which we will talk about more in a second, oh don’t you worry), bay leaves (Lorbeerblätter, LORE-beah-BLEEEEHT-uh), caraway (Kümmel, KOOOM-l), and so, so, so, so fucking much dill (der Dill, ha ha).
In most grocery stores during the cooler months, you can buy a bunch of Suppenkräuter, or “soup herbs,” which is usually a combination of celery plus several of the above. As far as spices, or Gewürtze (guh-VEEEEEEURT-suh), Germans pretty much only have one (besides shit-tons of salt and white pepper): mustard, or Senf (ZENF), and you should probably avoid Germany altogether if you don’t like it.
You will notice that cilantro is nowhere in this milieu. The first reason is that its taste (even its “normal” non-bedbug taste) doesn’t really go with the palates of Dead Grandmother, Slaughter Plate, Hacked Peter and other greats of the cuisine of my forbears (and also the people who murdered my forbears).
The second reason is that Germans don’t call cilantro cilantro, so even if they did use it (which most don’t), they’d call it by its borderline-unacceptable German name, echte Koriander (ESCHT-uh koo-ree-AHN-duh), which means “real coriander,” because they don’t differentiate the plant from the seed. That’s how much they hate it. It doesn’t even have its own name. That’s right, you heard me: The Germans literally do not have a word for it.
If you ask a German Essen Sie gern Cilantro? (EH-sun zee GEYRN see-LON-troh, “Do you like to eat Cilantro?”), they’ll be like, Is that the new Robbie Williams record? If you correct yourself and say Sorry, I meant REAL CORIANDER, they may well react the way my former colleagues Ina and Björn did (Björn, for the sake of accuracy, is Austrian), with prolonged inside-out faces, gagging noises, and, in Björn’s case, the assertion that even the passing one measly leaf thereof would cause him to vacate the contents of his stomach.
Now, to be fair, according to my very accurate scientific Twitter survey from two weeks ago, #notallGermans hate cilantro. (All Germans do, however, hate sarsaparilla, or at least the delicious American soda approximation thereof. This is a fact.) And some Germans, again according to my extremely rigorous peer-reviewed research, have even had their Kräuter-loving minds changed by excellent guacamole. But for those who hate it—and they really, really hate it—that Times piece (old like me) gave them ammunition to be like Ha, there’s nothing I can do about it. If they’re really German, they’ll even say hee hee hee, and spell it hihihihi.
So: like the ability to brrrrring one’s bicycle bell at a volume louder than the laws of physics would allow from an apparatus of that size, or the overwhelming compulsion to tell other people when they’re wrong about something, perhaps loathing Real Coriander is just in Germans’ nature, Mensch.
Well, I’ll see your New York Times and raise you one NPR, where 100 percent of Schuman mothers Heard It. According to this piece, also old like my soul (and my body), the genetic “evidence” of cilantro-loathing is far from certain. Based on two studies published after the study the NYT loved so much, the genetic aversion to cilantro does have to do with the way certain genes inform the sense of smell—but is far more “nuanced” than This Herb=Bedbugs. “DNA does shape our opinion of cilantro,” NPR cautions, “but probably not enough that we can’t overcome it.”
So what’s the deal, Germans? You love overcoming things, or at any rate Nietzsche does. Unsurprisingly, I have a theory. And sure, I enjoy science as much as any non-scientist who does not really enjoy science but has to say she does so that people won’t be so sexist—but my theory has something better: rampant speculation.
You’ll remember I mentioned parsley. You’ll remember I said we’d be speaking of parsley again. Now that time has come. Germans fucking love parsley. There is nothing they won’t put it in. I’ve seen parsley in coffee, don’t @ me. You’ll also remember, or perhaps learn for the first time, that parsley and cilantro have a slightly similar lewk. (Here’s parsley; here’s cilantro.)
Now, though they look similar, of course they do not taste similar. For those of us who like cilantro, it tastes bright, sweet and a little tart. Parsley tastes like eating a toothpick (or, more charitably, sharp and herby and not at all sweet). If you were to substitute one for the other in a recipe, it would not go well; in fact, my mother-in-law (who is also European but likes both herbs) regularly puts parsley into salsa and guacamole if she doesn’t have cilantro on hand, which makes for a surprising first bite. Because when you’re expecting cilantro but you taste parsley, it’s jarring. I can only assume that the reverse also holds true, though it has not happened to me. A sprig of cilantro on the side of a Slaughter Plate to garnish the sauerkraut would be vomitous indeed, Björn.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you’re expecting one thing and you get another—a flat surface instead of a step; a five-inch puddle instead of a pile of leaves; one innocuous green leafy herb instead of another—it is going to traumatize you, possibly forever. Combine that with the fact that parsley is literally everywhere in Germany all the time—as ingrained into the popular consciousness as punctuality and recorder playing—and you see that cilantro can’t be anything but surprising, in a bad way. Combine that with the fact that Germans only started eating cuisines other than their own on a regular basis in the last three decades, and you have a Kraut that still elicits suspicion among, well, you know. It’s only a matter of time before the AfD party introduces a regulation banning it from the “German Kitchen.”