When I was a small child, I loved fresh tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes, hothouse tomatoes, or straight from the garden, I relished them all. That is, until a period that I remember quite distinctly, when the very sight of a tomato slice in my salad would make me gag. I suddenly hated tomatoes and refused to eat them—for the very simple reason that my brother disliked tomatoes, and I wanted to be like him.
Fortunately I grew out of my dislike for tomatoes (and also out of my desire to be like my brother), but that experience taught me from an early age that taste is both hugely subjective and transitory. Through sheer, stubborn will I was able to train myself to no longer enjoy a food that I had always enjoyed. More commonly we talk about foods and drinks that have an acquired taste: bitter drinks like coffee and beer, or strong flavors like wine or fermented foods. And then there are certain foods that some people will never like in any amount of time or tasting.
Cilantro is one of those polarizing flavors, all the more fascinating to me because there is actually a genetic basis for it. The dislike of cilantro runs in my family; both my mom and my grandmother experience the soapy taste that many complain about, and for most of my life I tasted the soapiness as well. Unfortunately for my mom, who loves good Mexican cooking, cilantro has become ever more popular and harder than ever to avoid. It’s one of those ‘indicator’ flavors; it has come to signify ‘Mexican’ to so many people despite the fact that it’s not at all universal in authentic Mexican cooking.
I don’t remember when I began the transition away from cilantrophobia, but it was a long, slow process. As I learned more about cooking, and about international cuisine in particular, I began to notice something was missing from certain of my Latin American or Southeast Asian recipes. There was a depth of flavor lacking, an herbal note that only cilantro seemed able to provide. I slowly started adding tiny amounts of cilantro to my dishes, seeking a balance between the herbal and soapy flavors.
Finally there came a sunny summer day in 2009, when I was volunteering at a demonstration garden south of Portland. As I weeded in the cool morning breeze, someone nearby asked what that smell was. I lifted my head and smiled as I caught the strong scent of cilantro blowing towards us from a few beds over. It was in that moment that I realized I liked cilantro.
A from-birth member of the soapy cilantro crowd, I had begun to see it as a necessary evil, and then sometime when I wasn’t looking it had started to grow on me. Somehow exposure seems to have overcome my genetics. And look at me now, Ma! An entire soup made of cilantro!
She’s going to be horrified.
Please trust me; it tastes a lot better than it looks.
This recipeis a combination of Tea and Cookie’s Cilantro Bread Soup and an intensely garlicky, spicy soup I once had in a café, which to this day I’ve not been able to replicate as deliciously as the original—but I’m getting closer.
Garlic Cilantro Soup with Poached Egg and Croutons
1 head garlic
5 C water
2 C sliced leeks (2-3 leeks)
2 C cooked chickpeas or white beans
4 C vegetable or chicken broth
2 bunches cilantro, washed
Juice of ½ lime
½-1 t chili flakes
2 baguette slices per person
1 egg per person
Separate and peel garlic cloves and smash lightly. In a medium saucepan heat 3-4 T olive oil over medium heat. When hot, reduce heat to low, add garlic cloves, and sauté 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to brown evenly. Add 5 C water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 min. Strain garlic and add salt to taste.
In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium low. Add leeks and sauté until soft. Add garlic broth and 2 C of the vegetable or chicken broth, and the chickpeas. Bring to a boil.
Roughly de-stem the cilantro and combine in a food processor with the remaining 2 C of broth. Process until cilantro is pureed. Once soup has reached a simmer, add the cilantro mixture, lime juice, and chili flakes. Taste and adjust salt as necessary.
Brush baguette slices with olive oil and toast until golden.
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil and poach one egg per person. Place two baguette slices in the bottom of a large bowl, ladle soup over the croutons, and top with a poached egg.