Cultural Diets: The Reason Why China Thinks Foreigners All Hate Cilantro

Food is, by far, the topic that expats in China are questioned about the most. But, strangely, it always seems to be about the same things. For example, locals will commonly ask expats about their chopstick skills, or grill them over their daily preference for hamburgers.

It's weird to consider that Chinese share the same generalizations, so just where do these ideas come from? One answer maybe the Chinese news.

The China Daily recently posted this Weibo news bulletin:

Foreigners say eating cilantro is equivalent to eating soap. Netizens say: You should try eating fish mint.
Many laowai think the taste of cilantro is not much different from eating soap, and there are even some who think the taste of cilantro is similar to plastic garbage ... Simply put, high-end food + cilantro = dog food. There are even some people who have specially created an "anti-cilantro website" where users can share stories of their "tragic experiences of mistakenly eating cilantro" along with other ways of expressing anti-coriander feelings ...

The news report originated with a Chinese news portal called Overseas Net that tells its Chinese readers that "cilantro has been maligned to no end overseas," adding that hatred of it is so intense that it has been ominously called "the Devil's Herb."

The "anti-cilantro website" is revealed to be IHateCilantro.com where Westerners are shown protesting against the herb otherwise known as "coriander":

This passionate hatred for cilantro isn't so strange when the revulsion against cilantro has been found to exist at the genetic level, coded into certain people's olfactory-receptor genes. But contrary to Chinese news reports, this distinction is not specific to any particular ethnicity, instead affecting anywhere between "4-14 percent of the population". 

Medical studies show people genetically-predisposed against coriander average at around 17 percent for Caucasians and 14 percent for people of African descent, and in fact are the highest when it comes to East Asians, coming in at 21 percent. And yet, Overseas Net is specifically vague about whom is affected by this specific gene, and instead leads their story with the headline: "Foreigners think eating cilantro = eating soap."

What correctly could be applied to a small fraction of all people has been construed by big Chinese news like China Daily, NetEase and the People's Daily to be about "many foreigners." But the generalizations don't stop there with the Chinese Internet at large have interpreted this news to mean "all foreigners." 

One Weibo user referenced this news by telling her readers: "Laowai simply do not like to eat cilantro." Others used the news as an opportunity to ridicule with one person writing: "Cilantro is poisonous towards laowai ..." while another jibed: "Laowai, are you lacking in cilantro? Can I give you any?" One Weibo user even took this news to be an insult, proclaiming: "WTF? Is that supposed to mean that I like to eat soap?"

Cilantro is a popular ingredient in China, used in everything from hot pot to dumplings to rice noodles. But before expats feel the need to defend their enjoyment of cilantro to inquiring locals, the process of concluding that all Westerners hate cilantro seems to have had taken a number of shortcuts.

Cilantro is an ingredient used by cultures all over the world, and for a "peoples" that supposedly don't eat it, "laowai" are shown using cilantro in their most popular dishes. The China Daily report includes as proof the image of alfredo pasta, a food that Westerners eat using forks such as those shown lying to the right:

The suspicious image reported by Overseas Net to be "laowai protesting against cilantro" turns out to be a modified image that originally looked like this:

And while many Westerners express their passionate hatred for cilantro on IHateCilantro, the website also happens to include Chinese users. In fact, one IHateCilantro website user named "pillaybeth" from China contributed this haiku, originally written in Chinese:

I want to make all
coriander disappear
Just a little dream

So, if there are also Chinese that don't like cilantro, why do Chinese have to generalize about "laowai"? Why do Chinese want to believe a stereotype when the truth behind this story is clearly available? Maybe people believe what they what to believe ... or, maybe there's a cultural component to it in which winners can be named.

Referenced earlier in the China Daily Weibo post, the author of the Overseas Net report has the presence of mind to ask:

As a Chinese person, at this time I would like to ask laowai: Maybe you'd like to try fish
mint?

Being that fish mint is a strong, pungent herb that challenges the palate of even the most patriotic Chinese, the answer to this rhetorical question is self-evident.

More stories from this author here.

Twitter: @Sinopath

Images: Weibo, Sina, Haiwai, China Daily, Vinepair

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