OR6A2 is an obscure gene that encodes for a G protein-coupled receptor, a huge and complex protein that sets off a transduction cascade when exposed to several members of a family of chemicals called aldehydes. That transduction cascade eventually creates a nerve impulse to the brain, which typically interprets the aroma of those aldehydes as similar to that of a particularly nasty dish soap or cleaning spray that permeates the flavor of anything it's present in. Rapidly, the brain is conditioned to associate a certain leafy herb popular in Latin and Asian cuisine, Coriandrum sativum, or cilantro, with this flavor, and the subject begins to avoid it assiduously.
But if you don't have OR6A2 , you're less sensitive to aldehydes. The presence of aldehydes in your pho or taco makes less of an impression, and the soapy flavor is absent. Other, more palatable flavors - a certain biting freshness, pungency, citrusy herbaceousness - come to the fore. The brain transmits motor impulses to your mouth that make you produce sounds which other brains will interpret as "pass the cilantro," and when they do, you take more of that particularly tasty source of aldehydes and other chemical flavorants, because you probably love it.
OR6A2 isn't ubiquitous, and it's not the only reason one might hate cilantro, and even if you have it you might love cilantro - but it's the current best guess as to why some people, like me, would eat cilantro salad if it were a thing, and some others would rather gargle with Palmolive. Unfortunately for them, the cilantro-lovers outnumber the haters, and so every Thai curry, Vietnamese pho, Mexican taco, Moroccan tagine is spiked lavishly with the stuff. What's a cilantro-hating cook with a penchant for world cuisine to do? Cilantro is, more or less, an utterly distinct flavor even if one disregards the aldehydes - not an easy herb to substitute for. Consider this blog an act of mercy in a cilantrocentric world.
The first and best alternative to cilantro is culantro - and no, that's no misspelling. Culantro is a New World herb, Eryngium foetidum, that tastes remarkably similar to cilantro despite its different botanical family and utterly distinct appearance. It's a leaf shaped like a chainsaw blade, easily found in Asian and Puerto Rican groceries, and according to Cooks Illustrated it lacks the aldehydes that give cilantro its variously-perceptible grossness. It's subtly different in its flavor profile, and much more intense, but it can substitute for cilantro in any recipe that calls for it. It's the only other ingredient that reasonably approximates cilantro's flavor.
Alternatively, one can attempt to replicate cilantro's role, rather than its specific flavor. Cilantro plays a role that I described in detail in Monday's entry, Cutting Richness. It's' pungent, sharp, slightly citrusy, and cuts through rich, salty, fatty flavors. What else can do that? It'll depend on the cuisine you're dealing with, and the flavor you want to bring to the dish.
Basil is a reasonable substitute, particularly in Southeast Asian cuisine. Thai basil and the similar holy or tulsi basil, has a strong anise-clove-camphor kick to it that could play cilantro's role in a rich Thai curry or bowl of pho. In fact, many pho houses serve basil with the meal, along with cilantro. Lemon basil is aptly named, and could echo some of cilantro's citrus notes. There are dozens of varieties of basil, of which the typical sweet basil you might serve in pasta is only one, and many of them embody deeply pungent, spicy flavors that might be to one's liking.
Flat-leaf parsley, on the other hand, could stand in for cilantro in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian food. Don't substitute the annoyingly tasteless curly parsley - flat-leaf, also called Italian parsley, is a surprisingly flavorful and fresh herb that is terribly underrated.
Indian is a mildly tough one, because it makes such pervasive use of cilantro, but fenugreek leaves, deployed with a sparing hand, could be just the ticket. You'll have to do a bit of searching, and maybe even grow the plant yourself, to find that one, though. Alternatively, mint and parsley could play well with Indian flavors.
In Latin cuisine, Mexican oregano, which I've already discussed, carries a peppery, pungent wallop that permeates a dish the way cilantro does. It's delicious in moles, salsas, and stews, and it's easy to find.
Finally, one could simply omit leafy green herbs from the dish entirely. You don't have to follow every recipe to the letter. If one amped up the pepper, chiles, ginger, or other intensely aromatic, richness-cutting ingredients in a dish, cilantro might not even be necessary to achieve a balanced, delicious dish.
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