MSG: Umami by a Different Name
Many of the recipes in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English call for monosodium glutamate, or 味精 (wèijīng) as the Chinese call it and “gourmet powder” as they translate it. Of course they do. The book was written in China, where MSG is as widely added to food as it is widely present naturally. Leave it out if you like, but when these recipes call for it, I usually use it, because I have tasted how a tiny amount dials up the flavor tremendously. Plus, I know its bad reputation is unfounded. But don’t take my word for it. Below are just a few of the recent endorsements of MSG by food scientists, top chefs and Asian eaters.
I love this ode to MSG by Annie Choi of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop
MSG, I want to thank you. Thank you for your boundless depth of flavor. You are the umami to my ramen, the zing in my teriyaki, and the je ne sais quoi to my vegetarian duck…
Life has been unfair to you. Not a single study has found you to be unsafe or toxic. The FDA, American Medical Association, and National Academy of Sciences ran studies and they all confirmed that you’re safe to consume. But you know, someone ate Chinese food on Bayard Street and then got a headache, so it must’ve been your fault. Another said they took down some MSG-dusted chicken, MSG-dipped noodles, and MSG-laced watercress, and then felt horrible and tired. But maybe it was the fact that they ate a giant pile of food? Delicious, flavorful food drenched in umami?…
When food-obsessed New Yorkers search the outer boroughs for authentic, home-cooked cuisine, what they are looking for is you, whether they like it or not.
Then there is this from Tasting Table, where numerous celebrated chefs sing MSG’s praises:
Great chefs love the umami-rich powder, and so should you…
Despite the controversy, MSG is a deliciousness-enhancer. It is umami, in crystalline form. [Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea and Next] describes it as “a creamy, vanilla aspect that bridges salinity and pepper in a really good way. It’s a bridge—whether it’s salt or soy, sesame or hot pepper—that kind of links it all together and weaves it in to one unified taste.”
And finally, eminent food scientist Harold McGee debunks the myth of its scariness in this video excerpt from Mind of a Chef, where he explains that MSG is umami by another name. His conclusion:
In the case of MSG, the record is about as clear as it can be: There is no connection between consuming MSG in any form and the symptoms that are often called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.
I’ve used MSG a bit over the years before The Mala Project, but now it’s moved out of the closet and onto the counter, taking its rightful, visible place beside the salts and peppers to be used, as they are, in moderation. (Everyone agrees that too much, as with salt, just doesn’t taste good.)
There is probably little difference in brands, but I buy the brand of gourmet powder pictured above because of its absolutely fabulous container. It’s been made in China or Hong Kong since 1923, not long after a Japanese chemist invented MSG by isolating the glutamic acid in seaweed in 1908. He crystalized it and coined the word umami to describe its taste.
The Chinese were mad about Japan’s Ajinomoto, but with mounting Japanese aggression soon switched their allegiance to the Tian Chu company’s Ve Tsin, according to this fascinating social history of MSG in Gastronomica.