Thursday, October 27, 2005

The invisible flavour of the east

Is MSG a recipe for disaster or just a harmless flavouring? Yorkie Pittstop steps up to the plate and wonders, would the dish taste just as sweet without


MSG is an acronym that strikes fear into the hearts of a few westerners I know. In fact for a couple of them, khong mi chinh (no MSG in the local lingo) is one of the few phrases they know.

Vietnamese on the other hand seem to pretty much accept it. I’ve even met one Vietnamese national abroad who even travelled with a packet to add to soups, which I admit sounds a bit excessive, I mean I’d never, as much as I love it, travel, with sachets of Dijon mustard in my inside pocket, just in case someone served me a sandwich without.

An English friend just can’t digest MSG, if digest is the right word. Once we went to eat pho (Noodle soup), and as we ordered he leaned over and barked “Pho! Khong mi chinh!” Just to emphasise the importance of this instruction he made several severe slashing motions with his hand, just to enforce the message, “if served MSG this could very well be my last supper.”

But perhaps they thought the dramatic motions meant serve more. Or perhaps they were curious to see what would happen, as halfway through his soup he started to sweat and fidget. He said he felt dizzy, abandoned his soup and staggered next door to a poky little café.

By the time I finished my soup and entered the café he was yawning violently and continuously, though I did arrive in time to catch his epitaph – “bloody MSG”.

Then he nodded off like a bored philistine at an excruciating theatrical performance, slumped against the wall, snoring faintly. He might as well have chucked the coffee over his shoulder.

Plenty of other people have told me of “turns” after a “dose” of MSG. But are they just an unfortunate minority?
You may not be allergic but it may be causing you damage, say the detractors. Some of the anti-MSG propaganda I’ve read goes so far as to claim, basically, it rots your brain, causes asthma, leads to obesity, and perhaps most simply and importantly, is totally unnecessary in food preparation.

MSG has long been the scourge of sensitive consumers as strong doses are used to flavour bland food or make cheap tortilla chips dangerously addictive.

But the Japanese man who discovered this funny little food addictive wasn’t out to destroy your taste buds. He just wanted to see what made food taste so good.

His name was Dr Kikunae Ikeda and in his native Japan a seaweed, called Konbu, was used to enhance the taste of foods.

In the early 1900s, the doctor isolated the taste enhancing property in seaweed – glutamic acid. Dr Ikeda and his colleague Dr Saburosuke Suzuki then founded the company Ajinomoto (Japanese for “Essence of Taste”), which began to manufacture monosodium glutamate (the original MSG).

At the end of WWII, US soldiers sampled rations taken from Japanese POWs and claimed the foreign rations tasted better than their own. This got MSG into the American market as food producers discovered it – and Ajinomoto itself set up a US subsidiary.

But the base substance itself isn’t MSG. Dr Kikunae Ikeda, christened it “umami” which means something pretty close to “yummy” in Japanese. Umami is now described as the Fifth taste – the other four musketeers being sweet, salty, sour and bitter.

Umami can be found naturally in everything from Parmesan cheese and fish sauce to broccoli and tomatoes. What happens, to simplify, is the human tongue tastes the released glutamate in all of these foods – likewise in MSG – and sends messages of joy and happiness to the brain. Hence, a tasty dish.

Of course, too much it seems may very well be a bad thing. Who knows? What has become apparent (I realised as I sat sipping my bitter, sweet coffee, watching my slumbering friend) is the fact there is a reason to carry your own MSG in your inside pocket – to serve yourself.

It’s the only way to know how much you’re getting.

1 comment:

Venitha said...

Thanks for the MSG background. I wonder, though, is there anything bad about it if you're not allergic in some way like your friend? After nearly 5 months in Singapore, I have a constant bad taste in the back of my mouth, and I've been wondering about MSG.

Dijon mustard packets - brilliant idea! =)