Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is Cilantro Kryptonite for Koreans?

Dear Korean,

Why do Korean people hate cilantro (aka coriander/chinese parsley)? In all of my experience, this is like the kryptonite of the Korean race. I live in China where there are tens of thousands of Koreans -- and lots of cilantro. If you ask a Korean what they hate most about China almost unanimously the answer is "cilantro" (followed soon after by "and everything else in China.")

Can you eat cilantro?

John K.

Dear John,

The Korean loves cilantro. Salsa, pho and bahn mi are not the same without it.


Cilantro, the Korean hearts thee.

But you are absolutely correct that many Koreans hate cilantro.Why is that?

First of all, the cilantro-hate is not necessarily confined to Koreans. There apparently is an online community of cilantro haters with nearly 3,000 members from mostly United States and Canada. Particularly amusing is their haiku section, where you can find these gems:

Cilantro my bane
Vile herb in my salsa go
Rot sickening weed

Malodorous weed!
A vagrant's armpit would be
More appetizing.

Nasty vile weed
Cilantro wrecked my dinner
Thought it was parsley
So being a Korean cannot be the only reason that leads to many Koreans' cilantro-hate. The bottom-line reason why many Koreans hate cilantro is simple. Korea has never grown cilantro, and cilantro is not a part of Korean cuisine. Often, people hate food that they are not used to.

But Korean people's cilantro-hate is nonetheless interesting, because it is a nice reflection of Korea's insularity. Many who visit Korea are often surprised at the unexpected provinciality of Koreans, especially when it comes to food. For a huge city that aspires to be world class, Seoul has a deplorable lack of world cuisine. There is a myriad of different Korean food, but a place in Korea to get a good dry-aged steak is few and far between.

Even the Chinese and Japanese dishes -- food of the two closest countries to Korea -- are thoroughly bastardized. The most popular "Chinese" dish in Korea, jjajang-myeon, does not exist in China. (It is a bastardized form of dandan-mien, which has a fleetingly similar taste.) Sushi in Korea is invariably served -- horror or horrors! -- choguchujang, the sour version of Korean hot sauce that overwhelms the delicate flavor of raw fish fat melting on the tongue.


Jjajang-myeon, you delicious bastard.

The food scene in Korea reflects the fact that Korea had been a really isolated country. Particularly since World War II, Korea was a virtual island, with the Armistice Line on the north serving as the fourth and more grassy shore. During the ensuing Cold War, Korea had practically no interaction with the communist China. Interaction with Japan has always been strained for obvious reasons, which further contributed to Korea's gastronomic isolation.

Particularly instructive is how pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) made inroads in Korea. Given Korea's relative geographic proximity to Vietnam (shorter flight than going from New York to Los Angeles) and Korean people's enthusiasm for hot broth, pho must have come to Korea from Vietnam, right?


The very first pho restaurant in Korea.

Actually, no. No Korean has even heard of what pho was until late 1990s. It was actually Korean Americans, who frequented Vietnamese restaurant in California, that introduced pho into Korea. The very first pho restaurant in Korea, Pho Hoa in Samseong-dong, Seoul, was not open until 1998. It was a part of a chain restaurant that started in San Jose, California, not anywhere in Vietnam.

Of course, as things always are in Korea, things are changing. As the country became richer, Koreans now have the time and money to care about what they eat, and they have experienced more world cuisine through increased travel. Although things may not be good, at least they are better than before. There are finally enough decent burger places in Seoul to have a top 10 ranking. Previously nonexistent cuisine like Indian and Thai are slowly making their ways into Korea. But gastronomically speaking, Seoul is not about to turn into New York any time soon.

(That last sentence should not be read as the Korean's endorsement of Korean food in New York. The Korean's massive hatred of New York "Korean" food is a post for another day.)

-EDIT 1/25/2010- Excellent article on the gastronomic state of Seoul. (In Korean. Seriously, if you care about Korea, just learn some Korean. Please. The Korean is tired of translating things.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.

45 comments:

  1. There is, in fact, Zha Jiang Mian in China, but you are right that the flavor is rather different.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zha_jiang_mian

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  2. I too hate cilantro and am Korean. I always thought it was just me.

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  3. I am German and cilantro is basically the only food I HAAAATE. srsly, cilantro makes me wanna puke.
    (oh, and of course brussels sprouts but that's another story.)

    It never occured to me koreans don't like/use cilantro.. maybe that's why i remember seoul being much more tastier than saigon or bangkok. ha!

    thx for the haikus btw.

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  4. A friend from college has made quite a success for herself as an events planner in Seoul, and her job includes arranging a lot of catered food.

    Having grown up in California, I guess I was used to coriander/cilantro wherever it happened to be, but my friend one day emphatically told me over a cilantro-infused lunch that anything with cilantro in it was something she avoided like the plague when serving her Korean-Korean clients.

    Sannakji had a theory about coriander and people who don't care much for kimchi, but he never shared it.

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  5. I believe some people are born with taste buds that make cilantro taste weird/soapy. My husband is Irish and has the same reaction to cilantro. His siblings have no problems with the herb.

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  6. I like cilantro, although too much of it overwhelms food. My greatest initial aversion to it when I first encountered it was the hairy texture (one of the reasons why I still don't eat a lot of Korean leaf-based side dishes enthusiastically), but when diced up really small and used within reason, I like it.

    Both of my parents, one who lives in Seoul and one who lives here don't seem to have a problem with cilantro either and I haven't met any first-gen Korean immigrants to Los Angeles that had a problem with it, but anecdotal evidence is clearly faulty when trying to apply it to the whole.

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  7. People who I know who dislike cilantro dislike it because in their experience, it's been used in inordinately large quantities. Personally, I love cilantro, but will admit that too much can be overwhelming, and that cilantro simply does not belong in certain dishes. A Korean friend of mine recently discovered (and fell in love with) cilantro, and added it to everything she cooked. This, incidentally, is how she discovered that cilantro, for all it's taste and great aroma, doesn't belong in everything. This has kind of led me to think that some people may dislike cilantro because they know neither what quantity to use it in nor when to use it...

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  8. For the record I hate cilantro...

    Root Beer is the Japanese Kryptonite.

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  9. Yes, I've only met one Korean (my bf) who likes cilantro. Whenever I've asked any average Korean in Korea whether they like, say, Thai food, they quickly respond NO! Why? Cilantro. But of course, Thai restaurants in Korea know of Koreans hatred of the herb and generally refrain from putting it in food unless you specifically ask for it. None the less, they all tend to hate Thai food anyway.

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  10. Just replace your use of cilantro with the use of mint leaves. An ample substitute if you ask me.

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  11. I believe the Korean disdain for cilantro is gradually changing--especially since there have been a couple of TV programs touting its health properties. I see it more at the supermarket. And people enjoy the cilantro-laden dishes at Star Chef.

    http://www.zenkimchi.com/FoodJournal/archives/615

    Seoul still has a long ways to go to be considered an international city for cuisine, but as with everything, it's changing rapidly. We can even get burritos, pierogies and Brazilian food out in the 'burbs of Anyang.

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  12. No wonder I am finding it difficult to get cilantro here!!! I was even planning to grow some using coriander seeds :-) ( I did grow mint plant as I cudnt find it too). Indian dishes use a lot of cilantro..

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  13. I have heard tell that approximately 10% of the human population is afflicted with a gene causing their taste buds to respond to cilantro as one would normally respond to a nice mouthful of Calgon. Perhaps this gene has a higher incidence in the Korean population. It's easy to understand not wanting to eat something that tastes like soap to you.

    Root beer as the Japanese kryptonite makes it hard to explain the A&W restaurants one finds dotted across Okinawa, except perhaps that the Okinawans are not Japanese (just ask either the Okinawans or the Japanese, they'll tell you at length!). Dr. Pepper seems to be equally abhorrent to Koreans. I still remember the fun of seeing my wife scrub her tongue with a dishrag to get the taste off.

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  14. Very much looking forward to the post on the Korean's massive hatred of New York "Korean" food!

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  15. I think The Korean is correct that people who have not been exposed to cilantro may not like it when first exposed to it. I also agree with a couple of other comments above that some people have taste buds that interprets cilantro with a soapy taste. A friend, who's a very good cook, will not eat cilantro because of this. I thought it was just her but looks like there are others!

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  16. Edward

    Many Koreans also hate Rootbeer. I asked a couple of friends and they said it reminded them of medicine their mothers had forced them to take as children...

    Korean 'medicine' is a topic for another day. ;-)

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  17. Charles Montgomery wrote:
    Many Koreans also hate Rootbeer. I asked a couple of friends and they said it reminded them of medicine their mothers had forced them to take as children...

    I was just about to say the same thing. I'm not a huge fan of root beer, but I found myself picking up some when I saw it at a military base store I was able to enter, just because I hadn't had it in so long.

    My fiancée and her sister both said that exact same thing: "It tastes like medicine; why do you like this?"

    I countered by griping about pŏndegi tasting like dirty socks.

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  18. I had a funny conversation with several Korean friends, in which I gave them a peppermint, and they said, "I don't like peppermint flavor because it tastes like toothpaste." and I answered, "I like toothpaste because it tastes like peppermint."

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  19. I'm a Korean female and I hate cilantro. Korean cuisine does not use cilantro at all, but that isn't the reason why I hate it; I don't just eat Korean food. I love variety. I enjoy Mexican, Vietnamese, and Thai food which are all notorious for their use of cilantro. As long as there's no cilantro, I love it.

    I've pretty much hated cilantro since my childhood. I have a theory that it's genetic to "taste" cilantro because people have told me it tastes light and lemon-y when I think it's unbearable and overpowering. Kind of like that taste experiment we've all done in chemistry in which some people can't taste the chemical (forgot what it was) at all while others do.

    My mother, sister, and two of my friends also hate cilantro. I think the common denominator--aside from being Korean or part Korean--is that we're all female. I had to go to a dinner party once with my parents to their friends' house and oxtail soup was served. All the men loaded their bowls with cilantro while the women steered clear of it.

    There needs to be tests done on this because I really do think it's genetic. The reactions to cilantro are so different.

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  20. Hmm yeah like the previous poster said, there is a 炸酱面 in China. What I'm curious to find out though is whether 짬뽕 is also an adaptation from China, and if so, what the Chinese version would be.

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  21. 짬뽕 is also an adaptation from China, and Chinese version is called 따로민. Taste completely different though.

    The Chinese do in fact eat lot of 짜장면 - which is more brownish.

    I have been to a few korean 절 in US and they actually eat cilantro 나물. The 스님들 actually love it - they make it a cross between 것절이 and 나물 - just add soy, chilli powder, vinegar and sesame oil.

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  22. Tastes can change. My wife was revolted by cilantro the first time she tasted it. But several month long trips to south-east asia, where she couldn't escape it, brought her around. Now she goes totally overboard on the stuff and harasses the waitresses at Viet and Thai restaurants for MORE and buys it by the bunch for curries and stir fries at home. Interestingly enough, she also claims that there is a Buddhist temple in Korea where the monks make a cilantro kimchi. No idea if that's true or not.

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  23. The very first time I went to a pho restaurant seven years ago (I lived in Korea and was 14 years old), I could NOT force myself finish that bowl of soup, because I couldn't stand the scent of cilantro. Several years later, I came to California and tried it again. I came to love the taste of pho, salsa, and everything with cilantro in it. Then I introduced pho to my Thai friend, who ate the whole thing but could not stop commenting about her funny breath and smell throughout the whole meal and afterwards.
    I conclude that the cilantro thing is not really about Koreans but anyone who is not used to it. It's probably like coffee--you have to try it a few times to grow to love it!

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  24. As mentioned above, many people (myself included) do experience cilantro as tasting like soap. I feel for any Thai or Vietnamese person so afflicted.

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  25. Haha, I just saw the comment that root beer is Japanese kryptonite. True. The only root beer I ever saw in Japan was some dusty cans of A&W sold in a novelty shop, and my wife said it tasted like cough medicine.

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  26. Funny you guys mention root beer. The Korean's kryptonite is root beer and licorice. Can't stand them.

    The Korean also dislikes seafood that is not fish or shrimp. (i.e. shellfish, lobster, crab, sea cucumber etc.) But that has more to do with his Chungcheong heritage on his father's side.

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  27. The Korean wrote:
    Funny you guys mention root beer. The Korean's kryptonite is root beer and licorice. Can't stand them.

    I have always hated the taste of black licorice. It's the only kind of jelly bean I'll spit out.

    The Korean also dislikes seafood that is not fish or shrimp. (i.e. shellfish, lobster, crab, sea cucumber etc.) But that has more to do with his Chungcheong heritage on his father's side.

    I guess you mean North Ch'ungch'ŏng, 'cuz South Ch'ungch'ŏng is quite the coastal province.

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  28. Well this is a fun post. I'm so happy to see that I'm not strange. It took me quite awhile to acclimate to pho (using absurd amounts of sriracha). I found many things to have a windex flavor to me.

    It's been so long since I've had pŏndegi that I can't recall the flavor. I still find comfort in Red Bull as it stirs back childhood memories of medicine in brown bottles except with bubbles and lack of the Flintstone vitamin aftertaste. I used to like Doritos, licorice, root beer, and have found myself to be unable to enjoy any of them quite the way I used to. I guess tastes do change over time. Are there any notions of milk or mayonnaise not being agreeable?

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  29. My wife is Korean and hated cilantro the first time she tried it. Now she loves it. Once she gave it a chance....

    I've tried growing cilantro in Korea and it's very difficult, which partially explains why so many Koreans find it so foreign and dislike it. I also have my own theory that once upon a time (and I'm talking a few thousand years ago) it was viewed as "Chinese" and that there was a concerted effort to keep it out of the country to better construct what we now know as "Korean." I've heard Koreans refer to (in English) it as Chinese Parsley, although I don't believe 고수 can translate to anything like that.

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  30. I also echo the sentiment that Koreans also despise Dr. Pepper.

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  31. Hmmm..

    Root Beer & Licorice chunked together?

    I see those as entirely different tastes. I love me some, Root Beer.

    I freaking HATE licorice.

    To anyone here who dislikes both.

    Do they taste the same to you?

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  32. Parsley is different from Chinese Parsley (also known as cilantro/coriander).

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  33. Hey, how come you Chinos hate cilantro? Cilantro es da bomb, eh!

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  34. Agh I hate cilantro, I can immediately taste it. My family loves it though. Go figure.

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  35. My BF(Korean), my 2 bestfriends(Korean) LOVE cilantro!!!

    I am not Korean :)

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  36. i'm korean and i love cilantro!

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  37. I am a 100%^ Korean and I really LOVE cilantro! :) Actually all my acquaintances do!

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  38. Are you guys kidding me?!?! cilantro is sososo amazing and I love it sososo much!!!

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  39. I found this article on why so many people hate cilantro interesting, there's a genetic reason for it: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/dining/14curious.html

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  40. i'm korean and i like cilantro! i didn't know koreans hate it... what's so bad about it? :\
    but there is jjajangmyeon in china! i've had it in china, it's good, but tastes a bit different. and it's called zhajiangmien there.

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  41. when I lived in Tokyo for a few years, I discovered that most Japanese people HATE cilantro too. they really hate it. unbelievably the same people LOVE natto, foul-smelling fermented beans

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  42. I'm Korean and one of my colleagues (Korean) told me in her hometown (Muju) they casually eat cilantro as a side dish. I'm quite sure when she said 고수 she meant cilantro...but I can't verify this any further since she's not at my company now.

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  43. I was in a vietnamese pho restaurant full of koreans in flushing NY. one gentleman next to me asked the waitress: "do you have pho without the...(struggling to find the word for cilantro)...without the naem-sae-na-nun-pul"? Translation: without the awful smelling weed? Koreans living in korea hate cilantro. probably 90%+. I hate it also. tastes like soap

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  44. Interesting post! (I've never really liked cilantro, either.) But because I'm a very picky Chinese person, I have to correct you on a point: jjajangmyeon comes from the Chinese dish 炸酱面 (zhajiangmian). In fact, they're quite similar, and dandanmian is something else entirely.

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  45. I'm half Korean and I love Cilantro/coriander, as does my Korean mother! I live in Seoul and it seems Koreans living in Korea hate it. North American Koreans I know enjoy it. In fact if you go for Mexican food or Vietnamese restaurants they usually ask if you want cilantro or not because so many koreans can't eat it.

    My girlfriend is Korean and can't eat it she says it tastes like soap or something which I can't understand at all. It must really be something to do with only being raised on Korean cuisine. Although my mother left Korea in her early 20s, and loves it now, i guess taste can change.

    Seems it's just because

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