An objective, measured treatise on cilantro

Cilantro is a scourge on the planet. It is poisonous, nauseating, and the primary cause in over eighty percent of all cases of demonic possession. Chefs who cook with cilantro should be disemboweled with a potato peeler. Anyone who grows it should be administered a flamethrower enema. Thank you.

That’s really all I wanted to say on the topic, but the responsible journalist within me compels me to dig a bit further. Perhaps you are not prepared to blindly accept my opinion as the final word on the subject.

Fine. I’ll show you, wise guy.

Sun Tzu advises us, “Know thy self, know thy enemy.” Therefore, let’s take a closer look at what we know about the Evil Herb.

Cilantro (pronounced sih-LAHN-troh), also known as Chinese or Mexican parsley, is the leaf (and stem) of the coriander plant. Cilantro has a very pungent odor (charitably speaking) and is widely used in Mexican, Caribbean, and Asian cooking. Cilantro leaves look similar to those of Italian parsley, but cilantro has a more rounded blade and contains more and smaller leaflets.

People are strongly divided on the subject of cilantro. Many people find the flavor of cilantro enjoyable. (That’s fine. Many people also purchase Hanson CD’s. Far be it for me to pass judgment.) The rest of us think cilantro tastes like a bar of motel soap that has passed through the digestive tract of a walrus. I may feel more strongly about this than most people, because not only do I hate the taste of cilantro, but I am also allergic to it.

Cilantro is ubiquitous in foods such as salsa and guacamole, and as a garnish in Thai cooking. These days, it is utilized most frequently by incompetent chefs as a substitute for creativity. As a result, cilantro is turning up in more and more places, most of them inappropriate. For example, allow me to cite the menu at California Pizza Kitchen. Cilantro is an ingredient in virtually every item except the fountain drinks. They must have the stuff delivered by dump trucks.

Some years ago, I was at a rather nice seafood restaurant for an expense account dinner with my boss and several guests. A lovely appetizer of fried calamari was destroyed (for me, anyway) by some yahoo in the kitchen who decided to “make his mark” by dousing the dish in cilantro instead of parsley.

Regardless of my personal preferences, the elimination of cilantro from the world’s restaurants is not going to happen. I have to accept this, especially since I have gone on record as having absolutely no sympathy for those people with the fatal peanut allergy, who will die a horrible, painful, flaming death if they come within twenty feet of a Snickers bar. I have, I admit, suggested that these unfortunate souls all be enclosed in plastic bubbles, so as to no longer interfere with my ability to consume peanuts in public. And if they were to complain about this treatment, I would inject helium gas into their bubbles and drop-kick them, so we could all laugh at their high, squeaky voices as they are carried away on the wind.

Fortunately, my cilantro allergy is not fatal. Sinus irritation is the only symptom. If I ate a large quantity of cilantro, I might have trouble breathing, but that will never happen because I can’t stand the stuff and can quickly detect it in anything I eat. So I have learned to co-exist with cilantro. Occasionally I have to skip the salsa and pico de gallo when we have Mexican food, and I have to warn them in the Thai joints to keep it off my soup. I accept the fact that I have to be cautious of everything in Vietnamese restaurants, or almost any “trendy” Asian spot. Restaurants with a “Southwestern” theme also tend to be major offenders.

I don’t know how common cilantro allergies are, but a quick Google search indicates that I’m not the only person with this affliction. I haven’t done an exhaustive study to see how well restaurants deal with the issue. But I have found out that Big Bowl, which I would place high on the list of “trendy” Asian chain restaurants, does provide their staff with a detailed guide to potential allergens in their menu items, and cilantro allergies are included.

The real problem is when cilantro turns up in dishes in which it simply doesn’t belong, and the menu fails to mention it. Last fall I ordered a new menu item, the BBQ Chicken Salad, at a Max & Erma’s restaurant. I had eaten about a fourth of the salad when I hit a large pocket of cilantro buried in the middle. I sent the salad back to the kitchen, explaining that the incident could have been avoided if the menu had only listed cilantro as an ingredient in the salad. I received the typical vacant stare you would expect from a low-level employee of a national chain eatery. So I sent an e-mail message explaining my issue to the corporate office. About two weeks later, I received the following reply:

Dear Mike,
Thank you for your e-mail regarding the BBQ Chicken Salad. I am sorry to hear about your bad experience with our salad. I have forwarded this information to our Food & Beverage Department for their consideration.

Again, we appreciate your comment and look forward to your next visit to Max & Erma’s.

Todd B. Barnum, President

A recent check of the Max & Erma’s website shows that they have indeed listed “fresh cilantro” among the ingredients in the BBQ Chicken Salad on their online menu. So, today I made like a good investigative reporter and had lunch at the Max & Erma’s restaurant in Arlington Heights, Illinois. As soon as I was seated, I opened the printed menu and went immediately to the Entrée Salads section to find the BBQ Chicken Salad. There was no mention of cilantro in the item description.

My waiter was a pleasant, eager young fellow. When he came to take my order, I explained that I was allergic to cilantro, and I innocently asked if it was safe to order the BBQ Chicken Salad.

“Let me check for you,” he said, and dashed off.

He returned quickly and confirmed that cilantro was indeed an ingredient in the salad.

“Can I order it without the cilantro?”

“I’ll find out,” he said, and started to dash off again. This time, he paused and asked, “Just out of curiosity, what is cilantro?”

I explained.

“Oh, it’s like that green stuff in salsa,” he said. “Gotcha.”

He confirmed that the salad could be prepared without the cilantro, and I ordered the half size.

After finishing my lunch, I sat down with the restaurant’s general manager, Kristen Pierce, and told her about my e-mail correspondence with the company. She confirmed that the printed menus were refreshed frequently, and certainly had been changed several times since last fall. So I had failed in my attempt to have cilantro listed on the printed menus, which have far greater customer exposure than the menu on the website.

But she insisted that the chain takes allergy issues seriously. “Our policy is for me to be notified personally whenever a customer reports an allergy, as you did today,” she explained. “I have a complete list of all the menu ingredients, so we can make sure the customer is able to avoid any problem foods.” In fact, Kristen told me that Max & Erma’s had completely eliminated peanuts from their menu because of allergy concerns.

Great. Another victory for the peanut people.

Kristen listened patiently as I explained what I was trying to accomplish. But I don’t think I will be able to sign her up for my crusade.

“Personally, I love cilantro,” she said.

Since cilantro is not going away, we must deal with its presence in our lives through constant vigilance. We must insist on full disclosure by all restaurants that use cilantro in any way. You shouldn’t have to claim an allergy to force a restaurant to fess up; just not liking the stuff is sufficient. Considering the number of people who dislike it, no one in the food business should be taking cilantro for granted.

Recently, there have been a number of reports that cilantro has been found to possess some positive health benefits. Some independent research indicates that cilantro helps to flush the body of undesirable heavy metal (mercury, aluminum, Guns N’ Roses). And an article just yesterday in the Chicago Sun-Times reports that cilantro has been found to contain dodecenal, a potent antibiotic that is very effective in killing salmonella.

This is very bad news. Cilantro is now only a few magazine articles away from becoming the biggest “miracle cure” since laetrile. We need to keep our perspective lest cilantro starts turning up in our breakfast cereal. The Sun-Times article contains the following disturbing quote: “It (cilantro)…may be nature’s next wonder food.”

You know we’re in trouble when they start talking like this. Nature has only one “wonder food,” and everyone knows it: Twinkies. And I will take a Twinkie over some foul-smelling, soapy-flavored weed any day of the week.

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