Let’s face it. Asian cooks like to sprinkle a little monosodium glutamate (MSG) into their dishes as they cook. My mother has her jar of bồt ngọt (sweet powder) handy in the kitchen. She uses it sparingly and believes it gives her food a flavor boost. Some old school Vietnamese people swear that pho noodle soup isn’t authentic unless it has MSG in it.
It’s not necessarily a generational thing. Maki, my good friend and contemporary, grew up with a dispenser of Ajinomoto (the leading maker of the flavor enhancer) at her family’s Japanese table. “We sprinkled it on food like salt,” she said. Lord, we never lived like that. We just had the bottle of fish sauce on our table!
In older Asian cookbooks printed in the United States, MSG was a commonly-listed ingredient. Just a pinch was needed, and renowned food authorities like Florence Lin and Virginia Lee called for them in their recipes. Modern Asian cookbooks written and printed in Asia still include MSG in their recipes. If you read Vietnamese, you’ll see the ingredient listed as bồt ngọt or mì chính. When “chicken bouillon powder” is called for, that’s just a bit of MSG.
What is MSG? Technically, it’s the salt of an amino acid called glutamic acid and a form of glutamate. Amino acids are naturally occurring in our bodies and once linked up, they form proteins. In other words, we need amino acids to survive. However, I’m not sure if you need MSG to survive.
It’s been said that and excess amount of glutamates speeds up the speed at which messages are transmitted along our nervous system. Despite the fact that MSG has no flavor of its own, once the white powder is added to food, it magically makes you think that things taste extra good. You can’t get enough and keep slurping and going back for more. The messages are being relayed awfully fast up to your brain!The Japanese, who chemically developed MSG, say that it lends foods the savory deliciousness of umami -- the fifth taste alongside sweet, sour, salt, and better. More on umami in a bit.
Is using MSG so bad? Not really as a flavor enhancer but when used too much in food as the source of flavor, MSG becomes a cheap trick. I remember growing up in Vietnam and people gossiping about so-and-so cook using too much MSG in his/her food. With a bit of the old white powder, you can stretch a small amount of ingredients to satisfy many. In Asia where populations are huge and resources are limited, MSG can be a life saver in the kitchen.
Some folks argue that manufactured MSG is not like naturally occurring MSG so the chemically produced crystals are not as safe as people think.
Fake MSG: I’ve never cooked with MSG but kinda crossed the line the other day with some fake MSG. Yes, that sounds like an oxymoron but it’s so post-modern isn’t it? A fake of a fake.
The powders I obtained were deemed to be all natural. The one from China, called Vegetable Seasoning, was the pale green and contained asparagus extract, carrot extract, western orchis (sic) extract, celery extract, salt, and amino acid (this last ingredient is a mystery). The other product, called Vignon, was developed by wine expert and taste educator Tim Hanni of Napa Seasoning Company. The tan powder is made from a bunch of ingredients, namely sea salt, natural flavors, yeast extract, maltodextrin, parmesan cheese, mushroom powder, garlic, and tomato powder.
Both of the flavor enhancers – or flavor balancer as Vignon frames it – taste nice on their own whereas MSG has no taste. I was making a vegetarian Chinese hot and sour soup last night and it needed just a little something so I added a pinch of the Chinese stuff and the soup tasted better.
Vignon claims that you can substitute it for salt or sprinkle it on just anything and it will pop the flavor. I just sprinkled some on brown rice and the rice took on a funny cheesy taste that I didn’t care for. Vignon says that it will help foods taste better with wine but I’m afraid it would alter the fundamental flavor of foods too much.
Umami-rich ingredients: Both of these fake MSG products employ ingredients like asparagus, carrot, tomato, parmesan cheese, and mushroom that have high levels of naturally occurring glutamate. So it’s not a fake fake but rather a natural fake of a fake. Got it.
Would I add these powders to my pantry? I don’t think so. They’re fun to fool with but I already cook with plenty of umami-rich ingredients. In the Vietnamese larder, staples such as the following introduce savory depth (yumminess) to foods:
- Fish sauce (nuoc mam)
- Shrimp sauce (mam tom)
- Dried shrimp
- Soy sauce
- Maggi Seasoning Sauce
- Oyster Sauce
- Dried shiitake mushroom
- Meat, poultry, and seafood
Many dried Asian foodstuffs such as dried shrimp, mushroom, scallop, seaweed, etc., are high in umami. Japanese cooks have it dialed in as dashi, their basic cooking broth made of seaweed and dried bonito flakes, is umami laden. If such ingredients comprise the ballast for your flavors, you don’t need extra help from enhancers and the like. However, it’s good to have a sense of how those ingredients build flavor in your food.
- "If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?" by Alex Renton of The Observer
- Umami Information Center
- Chinese restaurant syndrome symptoms and analysis by U.S. NIH Medical Encyclopedia
- Homemade umami salt on Eric Gower's Breakaway cook blog