For as long as she can remember, Isabella Silvers has despised the taste of cilantro.
The 30-year-old British-Punjabi journalist living in London says the herb has shown up in dishes served at family meals throughout her life — among them naan, dahl and mattar paneer.
“I would have to awkwardly eat around it or pick it out,” Silvers said about the green leaves that are part of the coriander plant and common in the cuisines of India, Mexico, Thailand and Morocco, among many others.
“I can taste even the smallest amount of the fresh herb, and it overpowers any dish I eat,” Silvers said. She sometimes wonders whether people around her think she’s just being dramatic.
“I love meeting other people who can’t stand cilantro as it backs me up that I’m not odd or weird,” Silvers said.
Luis González/Adobe Stock
Love them or hate them? Mushrooms are frequently divisive.
Cilantro is one of many polarizing foods with legions of fans and haters. The list of disliked foods would likely be as long as there are people with opinions, but cilantro is part of an informal subset of more divisive ingredients that often includes mushrooms, olives, blue cheese, mayonnaise and avocado, among others.
Love it or hate it is pretty clear, but the reasons behind what we like and don’t like are not always so straightforward.
How you perceive food flavor has much to do with smell
Cilantro is a common food villain that people tend to either adore or revile, and it can come down to genetics.
“It usually has to do with the odor,” said Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, explaining that scientists looked at olfactory receptors and discovered that individuals with a certain gene, OR6A2, are more sensitive to smelling cilantro.
That, in turn, affects how people perceive its flavor, which many report has a soapiness to it.
Avocado heaped with cilantro: Two wrongs for some diners.
“Our language is really limited when we say food tastes a certain way,” Mennella explained. “It’s actually your sense of smell that allows you to distinguish between something like strawberry and cherry Jell-O.”
And it all comes down to something called volatiles, says Linda Bartoshuk, an experimental psychologist and professor of food science at the University of Florida.
Volatiles refer to chemicals evaporated into the air that are part of the retronasal olfaction process that produces flavor, Bartoshuk says. This happens when smells make their way to the back of your nose from inside your mouth as you eat.
To understand them, you have to understand the difference between flavor and taste.
Taste is a very simple sense that can be broken down into the basic qualities of sweet, salty, sour and bitter, Bartoshuk says.
AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach
The origin stories of delicious creations are often contested, and the whoopie pie is no exception.
Pennsylvania and Maine are just two of the locations that lay claim to the chocolate cake-like cookie sandwiches filled with cream. Amish cooks came up with them, Pennsylvania says, while Maine says they were first sold at Labadie's Bakery in Lewiston in the 1920s.
Maine took things one step further by making the whoopie pie the official state "treat" in 2011. (Not to be confused with the state dessert, which is blueberry pie).
By <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/15244081@N00">Eunice</a> - <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/ejchang/2664211798/">the best birthday cake ever.</a>Uploaded by <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Di%C3%A1doco&action=edit&redlink=1" class="new" title="User:Diádoco (page does not exist)">Diádoco</a>, CC BY-SA 2.0
Alabama's got a state dessert, too: Lane cake. The star of this layer cake is the filling — a buttery, bourbon- or brandy-spiked raisin mixture that sometimes includes pecans and coconut.
Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, is credited as the cake's creator and namesake, and the recipe appeared in her 1898 "Some Good Things to Eat" cookbook. The Southern sweet also makes it into the pages of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Named for Marion County, Oregon, the marionberry is a cross between Chehalem and Olallie blackberries. The berry was introduced in 1956, according to the Oregon Raspberry & Blackberry Commission. The marionberry has "a tart, earthy sweetness," the commission says, "perfect for eating fresh."
They're also very good in pies, and come July, bakeries are brimming with berries baked into rich, buttery crusts. Lauretta Jean's Pie Bakery in Portland makes the most of the short but sweet marionberry season.
The iconic key lime pie's origins have been called into question in recent years, and Floridians aren't happy about it. But the pie certainly has strong ties to Florida, and it's the official state pie. (Still, strawberry shortcake's recent designation as state dessert was met with consternation from some key lime pie lovers).
Small, tart, yellowish key limes were once grown commercially in the Florida Keys, and the pie is Key West's signature dish. Britannica's online entry about the pie suggests that these days imported limes or bottled juice are used in many pies. Typically, a graham cracker crust is filled with a tart custard made with plenty of juice and sweetened condensed milk.
St. Louis gooey butter cake is thought to be the result of a happy accident of proportions in the 1930s.
Although not Missouri's state dessert (that would be the ice cream cone, which has ties to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair), the dense, flat cake with a gooey center is for sale all over St. Louis — in classic form or with a twist such as lemon or butter pecan flavor. It's often dusted with powdered sugar.
Shave ice came to Hawaii via sugar plantation workers from Japan, where kakigori had been a popular sweet dessert for centuries. Soft flakes of ice shaved from a solid block soak up the sweet syrup of your choice.
Matsumoto Shave Ice, established in 1951 on Oahu's North Shore, has been serving the refreshing treat to generations of locals and visitors. Lilikoi (passion fruit) and pickled mango are on the tropical end of a flavor spectrum that includes raspberry and bubblegum. Condensed milk, vanilla ice cream and azuki beans are among the available add-ons.
By <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Markmark28" title="User:Markmark28">Markmark28</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, CC BY-SA 3.0
Legal battles have been fought over a delicious chocolate walnut pie from Kentucky. Kern's Kitchen in Louisville says there's only one such pie, first created in 1954, and it has a registered trademark on "Derby-Pie®."
The business is very serious about it.
"Protecting our trademark means protecting our reputation and the integrity of our product. So although we prefer to settle differences amicably, we will resort to litigation if necessary," Kern's Kitchen's website says. But the Louisville Courier-Journal prevailed in 2021 in a trademark dispute over the use of the words "derby pie" in a recipe and article in the newspaper. A pie worth fighting for? Taste it and see.
By <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Ommni1&action=edit&redlink=1" class="new" title="User:Ommni1 (page does not exist)">Ommni1</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, CC BY-SA 4.0
This coffee cake makes a delicious holiday brunch treat or a sweet coffee accompaniment any time of day. The cake has roots in Moravian Church settlements in North Carolina and Pennsylvania dating back hundreds of years.
In North Carolina, Dewey's Bakery in Winston-Salem has been baking the buttery cakes since 1930. Winston-Salem is also touted as the production epicenter of the incredibly thin Moravian cookie, which features molasses, cloves and ginger in its most traditional form.
Cavan Images/Cavan Images RF/Getty Images
Peanut butter and chocolate with no baking necessary. What's not to love? This candy hails from the Buckeye State, a nickname that originates from a tree with nuts that resemble the eye of a deer.
The story goes that the bite-sized sweets, where all but the top of the peanut butter ball is covered in a layer of dark chocolate, were created in the 1960s by Ohio resident Gail Tabor.
They were shared at Ohio State-Michigan football games, and their simple goodness eventually spread well beyond the state.
By <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:GorillaWarfare" title="User:GorillaWarfare">GorillaWarfare</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, CC BY-SA 4.0
"A pie in cake's clothing." That's how Yankee Magazine described the Boston cream pie, which involves sweet pastry cream sandwiched between two rounds of golden cake, finished with a smooth chocolate glaze.
This pie impostor seems to have originated at Boston's Parker House Hotel, now Omni Parker House, which opened in 1855. Boston cream pie is the state dessert of Massachusetts. (The state doughnut? Yup, Boston cream.) Why it's called a pie is still very much a mystery.
Nelea Reazanteva/Adobe Stock
This banana dish involving butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, rum and banana liqueur — and set on fire tableside and served over vanilla ice cream — was dreamed up at Brennan's Restaurant in New Orleans. It was for a 1951 dinner honoring Richard Foster, chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission, according to The Times-Picayune newspaper.
At Brennan's, it's offered at breakfast, lunch and dinner and is the most-ordered item on the menu. Here's the recipe. Proceed with caution, flambé novices.
By <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Missvain" title="User:Missvain">Missvain</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, CC BY 4.0
With up to 10 thin layers of yellow cake separated by fudge frosting, this cake originating on Maryland's Smith Island is thought to date back generations. Its designation as Maryland's official state dessert in 2008 brought national attention to the cake and its birthplace, a three-by-five mile island in the Chesapeake Bay where pretty much everything arrives by boat.
Today, two baking outfits, Smith Island Bakery and Smith Island Baking Company, ship different flavors of the cake all over the country.
The precise origins of the coconut cake are hard to pin down, but decadent layer cakes covered in shaved coconut have been associated with the South since the 1800s. Baker and author Anne Byrn told NPR that enslaved African cooks had knowledge of new ingredients such as coconut and produced some of the South's best cakes.
Here's a treasured family recipe from Cheryl Day of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia.
By <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Faolin42" title="User:Faolin42">John Phelan</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, CC BY-SA 3.0
This anise-flavored cookie topped with cinnamon sugar was brought to New Mexico by early Spanish colonists. The biscochito has been the official state cookie since 1989, and by New Mexico's claim, the first in the nation to receive the designation. Frequently made with lard, the dough is rolled out thin and often cut into shapes. The cookies are a Christmas tradition and often appear at weddings and other celebrations.
Texas Monthly said it got a "sheet-load of letters" a few years ago about the best way to make this thin chocolate cake that's often associated with funerals and church events.
How it came to be associated with the state is still a mystery, although its size has been put forward as one possible reason. Often baked in a jelly-roll pan, the cake is expansive. Cocoa is the standout ingredient in both cake and frosting, with nuts mixed into the latter.
The biology of taste
And taste biology is the same among all humans.
“We like sweet and hate bitter,” Bartoshuk said, and the biological reasons for that are hardwired into our brains.
Newborn babies like sweet tastes and not bitter ones, Bartoshuk says, since bitter things can indicate poison. “Not liking them is a built-in defense mechanism.”
Genetic variation also comes into play when it comes to genes that let us sense bitter things, and some people may be more sensitive than others to bitterness, she says.
“Supertasters are people who experience particularly intense tastes, a category of genetic variations,” she says. And the intensity of bitter that a person experiences can certainly affect their preference for the related food.
But how sensitive you are to sweetness or bitterness doesn’t always relate to whether you like a food or not, says Mennella.
“You may taste cruciferous vegetables as more bitter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow to like them,” she said. “A little salt and sugar go a long way in reducing the bitterness; it’s really the rules of cuisine.”
When it comes to sensing flavor, your olfactory system is doing the work.
When volatiles enter your mouth, their compounds evaporate in the air and move up the back of your nose — the retronasal olfaction process that helps you perceive flavor.
“Flavor has different properties than taste,” Bartoshuk said.
And while taste is hard-wired, olfaction or odor — which can include an endless range of aromas, from chocolate and vanilla to rotting odors and the smell of blue cheese — is something you have to learn to like.
Blue cheese and olives: Two great tastes or a flavor nightmare?
‘Your biology is not your destiny’
So can someone learn to like a food they’ve long detested?
Mennella says it’s entirely possible.
“Your biology is not your destiny,” she said. “Not to say genetics aren’t important. But when you’re an omnivore and open to these foods, you learn to like what you eat.”
And, perhaps as a surprise to some parents, kids are particularly adaptable when it comes to learning to like new foods, says Mennella. Research has shown that after giving a child from eight to 10 tastes of a food, they will become more accepting of it, she said.
Even people who hate cilantro may be able to learn to at least tolerate it, if not like it.
Patties served with cilantro chutney
Eric Ginsburg, 35, a food writer in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he often encounters cilantro in meals and that it has always tasted soapy to him and everyone in his immediate family, including his sister and parents.
“Think unscented hand soap,” he said. “The stems seem to offer particularly concentrated flavor.”
But over time and through exposure, Ginsburg said he’s built up his tolerance to the herb.
“Cilantro still tastes off to me, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to,” he said.
He grew more accustomed to it in a similar way that he learned to like beer, which he “couldn’t believe anyone would drink voluntarily, or for fun” when he first tried it.
“Small amounts of cilantro, especially in a curry or other dish where it’s been cooked or blended, don’t bother me anymore,” he said.
pavel siamionov/Adobe Stock
Pizza with olives and mushrooms is a no-go for people who find the two ingredients especially objectionable.
Bad experiences often stick
While preferences can be conditioned, usually after a few trials, Bartoshuk says negative experiences with foods — especially when you’re young — can have a lasting effect.
“Mostly, you learn to like and dislike food based on your body and what happens after you eat it,” Bartoshuk said. “But associations can make you like or not like something, too.”
When it comes to food aversions, just one bad experience or association can turn you off from something for life, she said.
Jasmine Robinson, 29, from Long Island, New York, said she was never really exposed to olives on the dinner table growing up, but has bad memories of them from when she was young. Another child, who wouldn’t let her have a turn on a swing, would mock her while eating olives from a jar and being “condescending and mean,” Robinson said.
“I just remember the smell of the pickling juice and the sound of her lips smacking around them; I have a cold sweat just thinking about it now,” said Robinson. She later tried olives as an adult, but the damage was already done.
“(They were) chewy and slimy and smelly and just a shade of green that wasn’t OK,” she said.
An unwelcome addition to bread for Jasmine Robinson and others who can't stand olives.
Culture plays a big role in what you like
Flavor and food preferences vary across cultures, too, but it has to do with familiarity and not biology. And there will always be outliers — a Greek person who can’t stand olives, for example, or a Dutch person who hates cheese.
“I would never eat a sandwich with just cheese like all the Dutch people do, because I don’t like the smell of it,” said Hilde Kievit, 48, from Leusden in the Netherlands. “And French blue cheeses are the worst.”
“Every culture has something that’s considered disgusting in other cultures,” said Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
There are many anecdotal examples, but the odoriferous durian fruit, banned in some public places in Asia, comes to mind. See also: Surströmming, a salted and fermented Baltic herring with a disarming odor that’s eaten in Sweden.
Australia’s beloved vegemite (a tar-colored spread made from brewer’s yeast) and the American penchant to put marshmallows atop sweet potato pies can come off as utterly revolting to people not familiar with them — not to mention those of us who are.
And while chocolate is something that has far more universal admirers than haters, said Rozin, it’s naturally bitter when it comes off the bean.
“It’s a human-created food created for humans to love,” he said. “We add the sugar, we add the milk, we build the aroma up.”
Bartoshuk says it’s unsurprising that the flavors we like and dislike vary as much as they do.
“Some of it is biological, and some of it is learned,” she said. “And when you put it all together, looking at all the variability there, why wouldn’t you have people liking and disliking things?”
When it comes down to food preferences in different parts of the world, Mennella said, it has a lot to do with what’s available and considered a food staple. And that could mean okra in India and tamarind and durian in parts of Asia as easily as fermented fish in Scandinavia and yuca in Cuba.
“You can appreciate how personal the taste experience is, because we are all living in different sensory worlds,” she said.
“Where we differ is our experiences and the values that are placed on these foods — including the cost, the teachings of how they’re cooked and the availability.”