By: Nancy La, Staff Writer
My relationship with MSG is a complicated one. It all started when I was working my first kitchen job at 17. A customer complained about getting headaches after eating and said it must be because of the MSG in the food. Our kitchen manager sneered, “We cook real food here, not chemicals.”
In this conversation, MSG was pronounced like a dirty word. That stopped me in my tracks and my mind flooded with questions. Chemicals? Aren’t all the foods we eat made out of chemicals? What’s wrong with MSG? Can a person even be allergic to it? These questions led me down a research rabbit hole.
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, a salt found in glutamic acid. It’s the chemical that gives food its savoury taste — umami, if you will — and you can find it in products like cheese and tomatoes. It’s commonly used in Chinese (and in my experience, Vietnamese) cuisines as a flavour booster. MSG’s Chinese name, weijing (味精) means “essence of flavour,” proving its importance in Chinese cooking. But it is not exclusive to Asian foods. Think about how you would grate Parmesan cheese on top of pastas — that’s also adding glutamates into a dish.
Controversies regarding the use of MSG began in the late ‘60s. In a 1969 medical report, a researcher made connections between MSG and “Chinese restaurant syndrome” — where people reported experiencing “burning sensations, facial pressure, and chest pain” after consuming food at Chinese restaurants. From then on, the negative attitude the West maintained towards MSG has never really gone away, despite scientists being unable to prove a connection between these symptoms and MSG. The little flavour crystal is forever vilified in the food and health industries.
The late Anthony Bourdain, a popular chef and travel documentarian, once discussed his opinion on MSG and quickly pointed out the reason behind MSG and “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”
“You know what causes ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’? Racism,” he said.
For all the hate and complaints that MSG receives, its presence in the cooking scene cannot be avoided. Have a look at any chicken bouillon powder ingredient list and the second thing you see is MSG. I even saw a container of umami seasoning from Trader Joe’s that claims its flavour-boosting properties come from dried mushrooms. In other words, it’s MSG crystals but brown. In the end, all of these products are cousins, if not siblings, of the iconic white crystals found in plastic pouches.
Efforts are being made to reclaim MSG within the Chinese community and globally. For instance, take a look at Uncle Roger and his hilarious videos where he sprinkles everything with MSG, including fried rice. While showering half a bag of MSG into a wok is not the way to go (it’s way too salty), this comedic take on MSG takes away some of the negative connotations associated with using it.
The next time you wonder if it is possible to elevate a savoury dish, I would recommend trying out a little sprinkle of the flavour crystal yourself. It’s one of the most delicious ways to fight a heavy aspect of Asian discrimination, right in your kitchen.