Once upon a time, I loved to eat fresh salsa. I lived in California, so it was plentiful. Then a bad thing happened: I got pregnant, and in the way things often go during pregnancy, I could no longer eat many of the foods I loved. Anything with cilantro in it made me violently ill. I thought this would pass once the baby was born, but it didn’t. It’s been thirteen years, and still, cilantro and its buddy, coriander, make me violently, violently ill. My spouse and I call it Cilantro Poisoning.
That said, I still eat it. I mean, seriously, who could resist that complimentary bowl of fresh salsa at the Mexican restaurants? But I’ve learned to dip my chip rather than scoop. And when I’ve felt the first rumble, I have to stop and go no further. As Broad City‘s Ilana says, “I know my body, dude. I go up to the edge and then I scale it back.”
People think I’m making it up. They think I just don’t like cilantro, and that I just claim it’s an allergy so that restaurants have to accommodate my pickiness. I wish this were true.
The truth is, while it is rare, cilantro allergy is an actual thing. There is a clear over view provided on the Livestrong website, but if you’d like to read some of the actual data, check out this and this or this. Or just do a search on PubMed. It seems that an adverse reaction to coriandrum sativum is more likely in those with a birch pollen allergy. I had allergy testing decades ago, and I do remember that there were some trees included. But the only one I remember specifically is the sycamore. Both birch and sycamore have white barks that peel, so maybe there is something there.
Coriandrum sativum. The delicate leaves are called cilantro; the round seeds, coriander. The plant is native to Southern Europe and Western Asia, but is now cultivated all over the world. In herbal medicine, coriander seed is considered a carminative, that is, it aides in digestion. I suppose, based on my experience, it certainly gets things moving. But most of the herbalism books I have do not mention either coriander or cilantro. Learning about its history has been a bit of a challenge.
The first recorded use of coriandrum sativum appears in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus, which dates to roughly 1500 BCE. Han Dynasty sources describe its use in China between 202 BCE and 220 CE. The Roman Pliny also recorded its medicinal use in the first century of the Common Era. The seed appears to be used medicinally more often than the leaf, but even coriander is used more frequently as a cooking spice than as a medicinal herb. In fact, it’s one of the seven spices included in the “spice box” of Indian cooking.
Since I have learned how to manage this inconvenience, you may wonder what prompted me to write about it. Well, I have a trip to India coming up. I’ve been wondering about the foods. I am eager to try the local cuisine, but I am aware that coriander is a popular seasoning. Last week I thought I’d test whether or not I still have the reaction to coriander by ordering a green curry at a restaurant. Major mistake.
I have been intrigued, though, about the fact that something that is recorded as being used as a digestive aid for thousands of years causes me such digestive trouble. It seems rather…Paracelsian.
Paracelsus was an astronomer-physician-alchemist who lived in the 16th century. Born Theophrastus von Hohenheim, Paracelsus was a controversial figure in his time. His views about the interconnectedness of all living things challenged Church
doctrine and his belief that “only the dose makes the poison” challenged conventional medical thinking. Paracelsus proposed that rather than an imbalance in the four humors, disease was caused by outside attacks on the human system. Centuries before germ theory, Paracelsus advocated keeping wounds clean. He also argued that no plant was inherently harmful. Small doses of even the most wicked plants could be beneficial under certain circumstances. It was all a matter of figuring out which plant or substance and at what dose.
Although humoral theory and the need for maintaining balance in the human body remained the dominant medical wisdom and protocol until well into the 19th century, Paracelsus’ views also took hold. The philosophy of “like cures like” would be especially inspirational to those physicians who were interested in plant-based medicines and who eventually became followers of nineteenth century Thompsonianism, the origin of contemporary homeopathic medicine.
Within this context, the fact that a plant that is supposed to ease digestive upsets makes me so violently ill does make me wonder. I can almost feel the ghosts of Paracelsus and the Thompsonians looking at me pointedly. I’m not sure I’m willing to see this reasoning through to its obvious conclusion, though. Or maybe I’m just not ready. In the mean time, I will continue dipping rather than scooping. And I will tolerate the disbelief of those who think I’m making it all up. They can keep their coriandrum sativum.
Please pass the chips.