Chinese parents are liars. If for instance, you do not like carrots, your parent will not say, “Eat that carrot, maybe this time you’ll like it.” Instead you will hear: “That’s not a carrot.” Once, when a customs officer caught my father sneaking (an undeclared) wedge of pungent Camembert in his luggage, he said, without skipping a beat, “Oh, I had no idea that cheese was a food.” At the dinner table, every declaration he made was to be regarded with suspicion. “Of course that’s not spinach,” he’d say. Once, he said to me at a banquet, “Look! They’ve made that chicken look like a turtle.” (It was turtle, as I found out afterwards.)
As a child there was not a lot I wouldn’t try. Pig’s ears, tripe, onions; raw fish, kidneys, garlic – they all slid down my gullet without my complaint. The exception was cilantro. It is a very pretty herb, a more fragile, intricate version of parsley; the leaves are like snowflakes, miniature and brilliant green, nodding on pale jade stems. The Chinese name for cilantro is xiang-cai, or fragrant vegetable. For nearly 20 years, I regarded it the most evil flavor in the world.
Although I wasn’t a picky eater, when I hated something, it was with an aversion that bordered on despair. The faintest whiff and I would run, gagging, from the room. And cilantro was everywhere. Taiwanese cooking is categorized by the punch of dried oysters and fish sauce, and laced with cilantro throughout. It has a pungent, carrying power—it transfers itself onto silverware and onto skin. I’d pick up a bunch, thinking it was parsley, and smell it on my fingers for what seemed like days afterwards. Worse, it wormed its way into my favorite dishes. Ubiquitously feathered onto roast duck and braised pig belly, it was threaded in with cool, slippery jellyfish salads, and it lurked inside shrimp wontons.
The leaves are like snowflakes, nodding on pale jade stems. I regarded it the most evil flavor in the world.
My father’s strategy was to insist that it was never there. If he went out of his way to point out that a dish had no cilantro, I could taste it—pungent, poisonous, even if there was in fact none. My mother had a poetic explanation for my dislike. She insisted that cilantro was a coming-of-age herb, and a love of its flavor came with the onset of adulthood. She said she didn’t like it herself until she was older. Cilantro, in other words, was puberty of the palate. I thought this was, too, a ruse, for the sure way to get any child to try anything was to assert that they are not grown-up enough to appreciate it.
The rest of my childhood was typical. I played and I studied. I was also cooking, whipping up bread on weekend mornings, mixing chocolate chip cookies and coffee cake in the afternoons, and making chicken cacciatore for my little brother when my parents were working late. I made a lot of messes, dreamily inhabiting the universes mapped out by Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, and the Joy of Cooking, and none of my cooking gurus had any use for cilantro. (Later, I heard that Julia Child would extract it from her plate and throw it on the floor.)
Then when I was 13, I learned that my mother had been having an affair with another man. This resulted in an ugly separation process that lasted throughout my high school years: The betrayal; then the masquerade that my father insisted upon, that we carry on as a loving family. It was a masquerade endorsed by everyone, including, shockingly, by my mother. Suddenly, the adult world was a web of compromises and barely veiled lies; doors that were closed for the sake of propriety, but that could barely contain the battles behind them. Then I went to college, got drunk and slept with someone for the first time, and felt betrayed by the realization that sex and intoxication, too, would have to be acquired tastes. If this was the grown-up world, I wanted nothing to do with its flavor.
When I turned 19—incidentally, the age that my mother married my father—I read Under the Jaguar Sun, a novella by Italo Calvino. I was in my last year in college, living a life of willful restraint and uncomfortable indulgence, and I became enthralled with this story: Two people, who have long stopped speaking, rekindle their passion at the dinner table, excited by the idea of consuming each other. I had never read anything quite so sensuous, grim or gustatory, before or since. It was unspeakably romantic.
“Did you taste that? Are you tasting it?” she was asking me, with a kind of anxiety, as if at that same moment our incisors had pierced an identically composed morsel and the same drop of savor had been caught by the membranes of my tongue and hers.
If this was the grown-up world, I wanted nothing to do with its flavor.
“Is it cilantro? Can’t you taste cilantro?” she insisted, referring to an herb… of which a little thread of the morsel we were chewing sufficed to transmit to the nostrils a sweetly pungent emotion, like an impalpable intoxication.
Passion is a perverse thing, and the happiest love story was the one in which two people eat each other alive. Yet to be part of that adult, destructive realm of feelings was something, I realized upon reading Calvino, that I suddenly desired. A lot happened after reading Jaguar Sun. I started to dream about Mexican cooking—the decadent, courtly variety that had yet to find its way to New England, where I lived—of chiles en nogado and elaborate moles. I became passionate about avocados, which up until then I had always regarded as rather tasteless, until I saw what Calvino described as their “fat softness.” But mostly, as I lay in my dormitory bed, tossing under the sheets, the flavor that filled my mind was that of cilantro, sweet and pungent. Suddenly, one morning, I awoke longing to cram fistfuls of the stuff, fresh, into my mouth. I walked over to the university market and picked up a bunch, slightly wilted, and walked home with it, clutching it in my hands like a bouquet, burying my face in its scent. I chopped it and stirred it into some mashed avocado, and ran my finger across the knife blades and sucked the shreds off of my fingertip. From being cilantro adverse, I went to being cilantro mad.
The food writer Harold McGee points out that cilantro has several fat molecules called aldehydes which can also be found in lye (used to make soap) and bugs. McGee asserts that the aversion to this flavor can be overcome gradually, one dab of cilantro pesto at a time. But I was not a McGee cilantro hater. Rather, the flavor that I had despised as a child became the same exact flavor that I craved, and the transition happened, literally, overnight. Now, for the past decade, the herb stands in a glass of water in my refrigerator, perfuming the food that I keep in it. I know two cilantro haters of the McGee variety. To my shame, I smuggle it into dishes that I serve them, just as my father might have done when I was a child. When they compliment me, I nod, smug as a cat.
Cilantro, I have realized, has always held a certain power over my life; before because I feared it, and now because I love it too much. I eat cilantro mixed with celery, tofu, and sesame and scrambled into eggs for breakfast. The stems I mince and leave in cold oil to gradually heat until it yields its special flavor, and then use to coat chicken or lamb. Then I have it raw, its leaves folded over into a ball, and pop into my mouth as a snack.
And so it turns out that my mother was, in fact, right when she said that cilantro would be my coming-of-age, that in embracing adulthood and all its shades and shadows, I would love it too. I can begin to forgive my parents for the lies they told me in my childhood, and to realize that some of the most important parts of life are not necessarily the ones that are the most moral or the most clear.
I am talking to my friend who is also Chinese. “Cilantro,” she says, “Well, sometimes there can just be too much of it, you know?” There is a pause. She says, “I guess that’s not true in your case.” In fact, I am thinking of how I will use it next. Tonight, it is cold and rainy, and I am alone. I will stew it with lentils and let the flavor heat me, and relish its fresh and always complicated savor.
I reply, “You never knew me when I was young.”