Q: I’m a native Texan now hanging my hat in California. Out here, they put cilantro in everything; the Mexican food is infected with it. It’s a nasty and repugnant weed that has no business in any type of food. Growing up in Texas, I never had to deal with cilantro in Tex-Mex food. Whenever I go back home, I’ve noticed that the cilantro invasion has started to take hold in Texas. Am I wrong to think that cilantro wasn’t polluting food in Texas in the seventies and eighties? Or am I just misremembering things? I think cilantro should be banned. It’s Satan’s weed. I hate it.
Greg Mullanax, Fresno, CA
A: The Texanist loves Mexican food. And Texas-Mexican food. And the foods of the southwestern portion of the United States. And all sorts of Asian foods, too. He finds each of these cuisines to be pleasingly palatable, poignantly piquant, and downright full o’ flavor. In fact, each are among the Texanist’s very favorite fares—right up there with smoky barbecue and multi-alarm chili.
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As such, he’s plenty familiar with this ingredient that you hold in such low regard. And—the Texanist is a little nervous to profess this for fear of causing you to go into a full-on conniption fit—he’s a fan of it. Cilantro brings a subtle pop of freshness to most all the dishes in which it makes an appearance and is such an essential element in so many dishes that a number of them would be rendered much less tasty without it. The Texanist just can’t imagine his beloved guacamoles, ceviches, chilaquiles, and salsas (as well as banh mis, ramens, and curries) and so forth minus the usual sprinkling of this verdant herb. Tacos al pastor without that small garnishment of onion, lime, and cilantro? No thanks!
For the gastronomically illiterate, cilantro is, as the Texanist just stated, an herb. Specifically, it’s a small leafy-green herb of the Old World that’s a member of the same family as carrots, celery, and parsley. Sometimes it’s referred to as “Chinese parsley” or “Mexican parsley,” although it originally hails from Greece. The precise nomenclature varies, but depending on who you ask and where you are when you ask them, cilantro and coriander are either the exact same thing or coriander refers to the plant’s fruit, which is known as coriander seed, while cilantro refers to the plant’s leaves.
Another thing to know about cilantro is that it’s divisive. People seem to love it, or at least not mind it, or, like you, hate it with a burning passion. Famed culinarian Julia Child found the stuff insufferable, once saying that if it was an ingredient in a dish she was served, she’d pick it out and “throw it on the floor.” But famed cookbook author Diana Kennedy, who has been referred to as the Julia Child of Mexican cooking, once said of those who don’t like cilantro, “Please don’t invite them.” In short, people, especially those who fall into the Greg Mullanax camp, have very strong feelings about cilantro.
This is nothing new. Detestation of cilantro has been documented for hundreds of years. What is fairly new is a scientific discovery that may explain the hatred. It seems that for some people a propensity for cilantro loathing may be an inborn trait. You, for instance, may have come into the world with a genetic predisposition to dislike the taste of cilantro.
But the Texanist realizes that you didn’t come here for a long lecture on the intersection of flavor chemistry and genetics. If the Texanist recalls, you came here for an answer to a fairly simple question: Is there more cilantro in the foods Texans eat nowadays than there was back in the seventies and eighties?
The Texanist spent a minute scouring his memory banks and determined that he has noticed more cilantro coming out of Texas kitchens than he once did. But then the Texanist remembered that for most of the seventies and eighties he was a fairly young man whose diet was dominated by barbecue and chili and bologna sandwiches and hot dogs and drab but delicious small-town Tex-Mex fare—none of which were (or are) likely to include cilantro among their ingredients. So he decided that he might not be the best source on the subject. Luckily, the Texanist works across the hall from—or at least used to, pre-pandemic—the state’s preeminent food chronicler, Patricia Sharpe.
It turns out that while cilantro has always been big in Mexico, it didn’t really start making a noticeable appearance in Texas commercial kitchens until we began receiving more imported produce. Pat tells the Texanist that she doesn’t recall seeing much of it before, maybe, 1975. “A friend in the Rio Grande Valley says they’ve had cilantro there as long as they’ve had palm trees,” said Pat. “Ditto for Laredo—at least since the fifties. But it surged in the mid-seventies, especially at the hugely popular restaurants Ninfa’s in Houston and Fonda San Miguel in Austin. That’s when Anglos discovered what Mexican people already knew.” Where once our state’s Mexican-inspired dishes were dominated by browns, yellows, and oranges, they’ve now become spiced up with occasional dashes of deep green.
This more-or-less jibes with your theory. Of course, as Texas has become more diverse, so too have our restaurants, as well as our collective palates. Thus, we’re not just seeing more cilantro in our guacamoles, ceviches, chilaquiles, salsas, and the like, we’re also seeing more foods that tend to be cilantro-infused, such as banh mis, ramens, curries, and so forth, all of which the Texanist regards as something to celebrate.
Nonetheless, the Texanist will resist the temptation of trying to convert you to the cause of cilantro fandom (though he feels confident he could do so with one scoop of his famous guacamole). Still, he can’t help but wish you’d learn to like that dashing little weed, which the aforementioned scientists have determined is not outside of the realm of possibility; you can, apparently, train your taste buds to respond positively and eventually even happily to cilantro. Living out there in California, as you do, avoiding it will be futile. And you won’t escape it here in Texas, either. So why not learn to love—or at least tolerate—something that’s going to find its way onto your plate for the rest of your natural-born life? The thought of all that delicious cilantro ending up on the floor bums the Texanist out—no matter what that lifelong non-Texan Julia Child said.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.