Victor Liong on MSG’s bad reputation
Used for hundreds of years to make food delicious, MSG is a staple in Asian cuisine. But why are we so afraid to use it?
The ‘delicious’ taste occurs in many foods from around the world. Some combinations of ingredients naturally go better — and taste better — together, such as tomatoes and Parmesan in pasta or pizza or blue cheese and walnuts. Scientifically, the reason is because these foods all have high levels of a naturally occurring sodium salt called glutamic acid or glutamate.
In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda managed to distil the sodium salt from kombu seaweed and the result was monosodium glutamate (MSG). This was also a revelation as to why dashi is the backbone of Japanese cuisine — the Kombu and dried bonito used in the stock contains a lot of glutamates. There is no chemical difference between added and naturally occurring glutamates. So distinctive was the flavour, a new taste name was added to the repertoire — umami.
Eating Chinese food growing up, we were taught to identify the flavour of deliciousness — umami. Much like how you would be able to identify sweet, salty, sour and bitter tastes, the Chinese have a great expression called xien wei. Its most literal translation is “tasting like an aromatic essence, an essential flavour”.
Stocks and sauces based on meat bones, fermented soybeans and various dried seafood are the backbone of many of the cuisines in China. Monosodium glutamate has been embraced in Asian cookery and cuisine since its development, and it’s as common as salt in many old recipe books on Chinese cookery.
There is a misconception from the west about MSG and its safety. The additive has been popular with food production all over the world from snack foods to condiments, yet the stigma stays because it’s still deemed as an unknown Asian ingredient by the fear-mongering media and ill-informed articles of the 1960s.
Chinese food is still largely looked upon from the sidelines as a mysterious cuisine of antiquity. Only certain ingredients including fish sauce, soy sauce, miso and kimchi are now being normalised. The majority is still largely stigmatised because — bluntly put — white people have not decided whether they like it yet.
Grant Achatz of Alinea recently named MSG as one of his top three kitchen staples and it took David Chang of Momofuku standing on stage for 20 minutes during MAD Foodcamp (food symposium from Rene Redzepi) to make it seem ok to use.
The word ‘umami’ is popping up on restaurant menus now, and it’s almost as facetious as describing a menu item as sweet or salty. What used to be a demonised ingredient is now the flavour darling, and like fish sauce and kimchi, the Asian cuisine had an understanding of MSG’s uses and applications before it was made trendy.
It was fine back when Ikeda discovered it in 1908, and it has always been fine. I guess you just needed Grant Achatz to tell you to believe it.