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  • Shashi

The curse of coriander

While working on a mandala sitting at the desk on my balcony in Pune yesterday, I began to be aware of an insidious assault on my senses that is not at all uncommon in India. In fact it is one of the daily hazards of my existence here. It wasn’t the unhealthy miasma that drifts up from the river during the hours of darkness, nor the acrid smoke from one of the succession of small bonfires lit by watchmen all over the city, nor even the fumes from the ever-rising tide of traffic.

No – what was causing me so much discomfort would actually be a tonic to many an appetite. Someone must have been washing something under the tap in the yard below – something green and leafy and horribly horribly pungent. Great sickening waves of an all-too familiar stench were wafting up to me, making me want to run for unpolluted air.

The same stench lies in wait for me if I advance too far into the vegetable shop without due precaution. To get cucumbers or beans or aubergines, I have to take a lungful of air from the relatively fresher front part of the shop then hold my breath while I dive in quickly to grab what I need from the back. For, piled high in lethal doses on the end shelf are…great bunches of fresh coriander. It sits there, emitting an odour so awful, so obscene that, if other people perceived it the way I do, it would surely be kept a very long way indeed from any environment linked with food, or indeed unprotected noses.

Going out for a meal is even more of a challenge – for me and for the kitchen staff. To order a dish in India without its habitual dusting of fresh coriander is to ask a small miracle of the chef. He will have to come out of automatic pilot for long enough to desist from that final sprinkling of the herb which, to him, signifies a dish is ready to serve. This can very seldom be achieved at the first attempt, even if the waiter actually remembers to make such a stunningly disturbing request when the order is passed to the kitchen.

Invariably, when caught out in this way, the cook’s first recourse will be to stir the offending coriander into the rest of the dish so I can no longer see it, but this won’t wash with me at all. I can detect the stuff a mile off. Only a total remake will do.

And this is just the last part of the ordering ordeal. Before this, I have to establish that there is at least one dish not infected by coriander at the more systemic level of the sauce itself. Fortunately, there are a few classic Indian sauces that function quite happily without it, and I have made it my business to know which they are – although I am never safe from the whims of individual chefs in this respect.

But keeping the foul, gag-inducing presence of coriander out of my food is by no means the only challenge I face when ordering a meal; there are other enemies lurking in the finest Indian cuisine. At least as repellent as coriander (for me) is cumin. It is a constant amazement to me that this choking, dirty, positively unhygienic pollutant could ever have been considered edible, let alone an exquisite flavouring. Like coriander, cumin strikes me as so thuggishly invasive that it strangles and over-rides all other savours as soon as it is added to a dish, rendering otherwise good food inedible. There is also the heavy chemical contamination caused by coconut paste, and the lighter but barely less poisonous soiling inflicted by mustard seeds and a few other ingredients I have never quite managed to identify with certainty.

I have of course tried to train my palate to be less sensitive to these various outrages on it. It is not easy living in India with such aversions. As far as I know, there is not a single Indian street snack that is not laced with either coriander or cumin or both, and the thali meals that most people live on here are invariably flavoured with them and several lesser offenders. As I cannot make special orders for these ready-prepared items, my freedom of movement can be greatly compromised at times.

Nine years of this inconvenience have failed to impress themselves on my unreformed palate however, and there are those who suspect I am just not trying hard enough. So it was some relief to me when a fellow coriander martyr alerted me to the existence of a website containing a reference to some interesting scientific research.

Apparently, such aversions may be hardwired and beyond our ability to do much to modify them. It seems that those of us who feel such a strong revulsion to coriander are highly sensitive to certain chemicals within it (aldehydes) that others do not perceive at all. This makes a lot of sense, as I simply cannot believe that anyone could actually like the odour, still less voluntarily savour the substance that is coriander for me. Ditto cumin. Ditto coconut paste.

And what was this wondrous website?, (note added February 2023: sadly no longer in existence). It seems I am not the only one to have found that the increasing incursion of coriander (cilantro is its US name) into once-safe dishes is threatening to render almost all restaurant food off-limits.

Accounts from 2,000 fellow-sufferers on this hilarious website detail as many encounters with the horrible herb. All follow the same general pattern. Within the first mouthful or two of some coveted dish, the coriander has revealed itself in all its shocking pungency, to the revulsion and bewilderment of the diner. Dishes have been sent back to the kitchen with comments about dirty dishwater, soap and other pollutants having found their way into the mix. These complaints of course draw a blank, and it may be some while before the hapless sufferer realises it is the coriander that destroyed the meal. And of course nobody else understands the problem.

We sufferers have every cause for concern, as the presence of coriander in Thai or Indian cuisine is one thing – presumably it has always been there (I have actually met two or three Indian corianderphobes, though I’m not at all sure how they survived into adulthood) – but it is also being smuggled into once-safe western dishes. Westerners who clearly taste and smell something very different from what we do seem so delighted by it that it (and cumin) has become a regular scourge – of otherwise wholesome wholefoods in particular. So although I shall probably have to go on living with my aversions [perhaps a look at the mandalas from the Mind gallery would be appropriate in such a mind-oriented context], it is of some comfort to me to know that others out there are crusading against the curse that is coriander. I wonder if anyone has created an anti-cumin website yet...


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