One of my favorite things about preparing and eating fresh, homemade salsa is the cilantro. In fact, I enjoy finding fresh, fragrant bunches of it in the produce section at the local grocery store, and washing and chopping it to add to lots of dishes.
Of course, not everyone shares my fondness for cilantro. But if you don’t like it, it might not just be picky taste buds at work, as I’ll explain in a bit. First, though, let me tell you a bit more about this interesting herb…
Enjoy all the colors of the Mexican flag
I decided to write about cilantro today in observance of Mexican independence from Spain in 1810, which they commemorate each year on September 15 and 16. And I find it fitting the colors in salsa represent the Mexican national flag of the independent nation — red (tomatoes), white (onions), and green (cilantro & peppers).
Of course, you can find room-temperature, processed jars of salsa in the center aisles of grocery stores. But, as always, I encourage you to step away from the center aisles. Instead, visit the produce section to find your own fresh ingredients.
Remember, you can adjust your homemade salsa’s “heat” by selecting different kinds of hot peppers from jalapeno, to serano, to habanero, and others. If you prefer your salsa with less heat, just clear away all the seeds from the pepper before chopping and adding it to your salsa. You can also use more or less peppers in your mixture to your taste.
And you don’t have to limit your enjoyment of these flavors to just a dip for chips or a topping for the favorite traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes like tacos, enchiladas, etc. Salsa is a healthy ingredient or topping for soups, stews, salads, and many fish, meat and vegetable dishes. I even enjoy adding a bit of salsa to my eggs and omelets.
Salsa filled with nutrients
Eating fresh salsa is also like taking a potent, tasty nutrient supplement with vitamin A, carotenoids, lots of bioavailable vitamin C, natural vitamin K, as well as calcium, magnesium, manganese, and potassium, with some natural fiber. In addition, the capsaicin in the hot peppers has pain-relieving properties and the onions have metabolic benefits. And don’t forget about cilantro…
Researchers at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, which I visited in 1976, studied cilantro in lab animals. They found that a cilantro extract quickly reduced infection and inflammation, similar to that found in rheumatoid arthritis.
Some evidence suggests cilantro also helps the body eliminate heavy metals, such as mercury, and other toxic contaminants linked to bone weakness, cancer, dementia, heart, and kidney disease.
Why some people are just wishy-washy about cilantro
For some people, cilantro’s ability to “wash away” contaminants from the body may conjure up images of soap — which is exactly what many people say the herb tastes like. Why is it cilantro tastes like soap to some, but not to others?
According to research, some people may be genetically predisposed to detect a soapy or even buggy smell in cilantro and coriander. (The green part of cilantro dries, providing coriander seeds. Coriander is an ingredient in popular, Indian curry spices — together with cumin, turmeric, and sometimes chili pepper.)
According to studies at the Monell Chemical Senses Center at Penn, my alma mater, the “soapy” aroma and taste of cilantro that some people can detect results from chemicals called aldehydes, which you also find in soaps and in a large family of insects called Hymenoptera. Ants contain the simplest form of this chemical, called formaldehyde, and the acidic form, formic acid. (Ironically, the Latin name for ant is Formica — one thing you actually don’t want covering your kitchen counters.)
Interestingly, the word coriander derives from the Greek word for “bedbug.” Coriander was used extensively in cooking during the Middle Ages in Europe. Its use in pesto sauce (together with pine nuts) predates the use of basil, typically found today in sauces for pasta, breads and meats.
In about 1600, coriander fell out of favor as people wanted to part ways with old traditions from the Middle Ages. English and French books from the period began to describe coriander and cilantro as “buggy” tasting. Of course, at this same time more exotic spices from around the world started to make their way to Europe from Africa, the Americas and Asia through the mercantile spice trade. (On the flip side, coriander also made its way to Latin America from Portugal and Spain.)
So — some modern researchers now theorize people of European descent seem more apt to taste that “soapy” or even “buggy” flavor. But you don’t have to let that “bug” you.
A Japanese study published in January 2016 found that crushing cilantro leaves will give enzymes in the leaves a chance to chemically convert the aldehydes into other odor-free compounds.
So why not whip up a batch of fresh homemade salsa today to celebrate Mexico’s independence day? You can still get all of the fresh produce you need at your local farmer’s market (or the supermarket), and you can give this simple cilantro trick a try while you’re at it.
“Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault,” The New York Times (www.newyorktimes.com) 4/13/2010