When you eat your way through eastern Asia, as so many food lovers are wont to do, you end up spoiled by dishes that burst with flavor. There’s a depth that seems almost supernatural — the sweet is somehow sweeter, the sour sharper, and the savory, or umami, flavors are far more intense. Then you come home to America with an addiction to those Thai curries from Chang Mai and simple chicken and rice plates from the streets of Singapore and Haikou. Finally, you break down and hit your favorite Thai joint or Hainan chicken spot. Just ordering the plate makes you salivate. But when it arrives and you tuck in… there’s something off. Those intense chicken flavors are missing their edge or that Thai curry is all bark but no bite. It’s still good but it no longer matches the hallowed culinary mountaintops you reached when you were in the east.
You start to look around, hunting for an explanation of why this hip spot seems a little less blissful, when you see it. A plastic sign at the host’s counter: “MSG FREE.” And then you know what’s up.
Because MSG is a flavor flood — so when you don’t have it, it will be missed. The natural flavor enhancer has the ability to make literally anything better. Chicken is more lush. Rice has more depth. Broths become dangerously complex. It makes food taste better than food has any business tasting. And it was crazy popular in the US, until…
In 1968, an anecdotal letter to the New England Journal of Medicine set MSG’s whole world on blast — at least in the west. And we have yet to recover. MSG was branded as an evil chemical that was going to make you sick. This is straight up bullshit for several reasons, primary among them: You almost assuredly eat glutamate (the G in MSG) every single day, multiple times, without either a) realizing it’s in a lot of natural foods and b) it is still used in tons of foods under a different moniker.
This is what MSG is, its story, and why you need to reintroduce it to your seasoning rotation ASAP.
WHAT IS MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE
As with all great food stories, this one starts with a single meal. Back in 1908, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda was enjoying a bowl of his wife’s soup when he was hit by the depth of flavor she was able to coax from the ingredients. He queried as to what her secret was and she informed him she’d been putting a piece of kombu (dried seaweed) in the dashi broth. Intrigued, Ikeda went to his lab and set about isolating exactly what it was about the seaweed that made his wife’s soup stand out from the usual sweet, sour, bitter, spicy matrix that seemed to dominate food tastes.
Ikeda evaporated a piece of seaweed with a standard chemical called sodium chloride — also known as table salt — until it became crystallized. He dipped his finger into the crystals and tasted them. He was blown away. He’d basically isolated the chemical glutamate and bonded it with sodium. He birthed monosodium glutamate. He called his invention ‘Umami.’
In doing this, Ikeda isolated the fifth, and many would argue most important, taste: Savory. That’s the one that makes Geoffrey Zakarian nod his head on Chopped and say, “you coaxed a lot of depth out of the broth.”
Sodium chloride is salt. We seem to have a pretty good handle on that. Glutamate seems a bit foggier in our grasp on what it is. You can find glutamates — which are chemically identical to the glutamate in MSG — in blue cheese, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, fish sauce, walnuts, anything tomato, grape juice, peas, mushrooms, broccoli, oysters, corn, potatoes, chicken, mackerel, beef, eggs, bovine milk, human milk, and anything made with a yeast extract. Even if you’re a vegan, you’ve had one of those ingredients.
Today MSG is made from beets or corn where the glutamate is isolated with salt, preserving the ‘natural’ aspect of the product. More on that later…