MSG

you already love it, you just don't know it

Source: Getty Images

Hello!

I can't believe it's been so long. I went back to working 5 day weeks and from about mid-September onwards, I become completely and utterly useless. No sun = no fun. I might feel human again in March. It takes a lot of sulking, stern talking, bribes and somehow, new projects, to get me moving. But the U.K is in Lockdown 2.0 (not that it changes how much I've done since the Lockdown 1.0 has ended). I feel like I should really pick this back up. I hope to get everyone excited about new ingredients and get creative in the kitchen.

This MSG issue was something that I wanted to do for a while. As soon as I started Appetite, I had a conversation with one of my friends, this is how it went:

So, there are three types of people in the world -

1) The ones that know NOTHING about MSG and never even heard of it (though they probably have consumed it at some point in their life).

2) The ones that adore and admire MSG and use it like pros, and have no shame admitting it. 

3) People who suffer from Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. What's that you ask? ''Chinese restaurant syndrome is an outdated term coined in the 1960s. It refers to a group of symptoms some people experience after eating food from a Chinese restaurant. Today, it's known as MSG symptom complex.''.

I hope that by the end of reading this issue, you'll join the second group and become best friends with MSG. Settle in, make a cuppa and get ready to learn. If you think that MSG causes headaches/sweats/and whatever else happens when you've gorged yourself at a Chinese Buffet, sit down and have a read too.

ABOUT MSG

What is MSG? Monosodium glutamate, also known as sodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. MSG is found naturally in some foods. 

So here's the thing, it naturally occurs in some of the products that most of us eat regularly and many of us admire endlessly (most of my friends LOVE cheese). Mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmy Parm Parmesan, kelp, seaweed, Marmite and Vegemite, Fish sauce, Soy sauce, Anchovies, Green Tea, Salted Squid, Miso, Cured Ham and many many more contain MSG. I can bet there’s at least one thing on this list that you absolutely love. I literally can’t stop thinking about Nigella’s Marmite Spaghetti as I type this (it is also nearly lunchtime).

Marmite Spaghetti - if you fancy making some.

What does it taste like? On its own MSG tastes like very strong salt. That's why in cooking it's used to enhance the flavour of savoury food. It's often described as the fifth taste - umami. Think of a slow-cooked stew or a ragu, MSG brings that deep intense flavour to your dishes with a little pinch.

HISTORY OF MSG

For decades, MSG has been unfairly linked to various health problems, such as headaches and allergic reactions. It's even been considered a factor in infantile obesity. 

In 1908, Professor Ikeda Kikunae discovered that glutamate can be isolated and extracted from sea kelp and turned into a powder. As a result MSG seasoning was created, it was called Ajinomoto and became available for retail in 1909. At the beginning it was marketed at the upper class housewives in Japan, it was marketed as a staple cupboard item that would bring you a step closer to modern living. The seasoning wasn’t cheap to start with; a ‘home sized’ bottle cost as much as 10 bags of flour. But 30 years later, a shaker of MSG became available to everyone and could be found on Japanese dinner tables just like salt. Eventually, its popularity spread and it migrated to commercial use.

Panda-inspired bottles of Ajinomto’s glutamtic salt. (Photo via Flickr, user: Kinya Hanada)

In Taiwan, the popularity of MSG sky rocketed with the street vendors. Ajinomoto tins were proudly displayed at the food carts, cooks celebrating layers of flavour. Taiwanese merchants resold MSG from the large cans for domestic use. The seasoning became available to people of all income levels, unlike in Japan.

By 1918, Ajinomoto’s MSG made its way to China, marketing it as part of modern new lifestyle. There was an uproar from some Chinese as they saw it as a sign of Japanese imperialism. In response, a Chinese producer, Tian Chu, stepped up and started making MSG seasoning of their own.

In the 1920’s MSG made its way into the US via Hawaii; likely requested by the large number of Japanese immigrants working on the island. Unfortunately, the marketing efforts failed and MSG use didn’t take off with American housewives. But by 1930’s and 1940’s, Americans were introduced to MSG in newly formed Chinatowns and when eating out at Chinese restaurants. Around that time, the frozen food market had taken off and MSG was widely used to enhance the flavour. After World War II, the U.S. Military became interested in MSG, to use in rationing to improve the flavour and make it more palatable for the soldiers.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s MSG started gaining a bad rep and the seasoning got linked to ‘‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’’ . The publication of Silent Spring and new studies uncovered possible carcinogenic effects of artificial sweeteners. Americans started challenging the use of food additives, including MSG. But since then, many well-conducted studies and pieces of research were produced to prove that MSG causes no harm to humans, and has no relation to any health problems.

MSG continues to be used world wide, its popularity growing and it’s becoming the worst kept secret. Many of my friends, chefs and home cooks use MSG in their cooking on a regular basis.

QUICK SUGGESTIONS FOR USE:

So this round of suggestions for use is slightly different as the internet seems to be still allergic to recipes enhanced by MSG. So instead of giving you a list of recipes, I’m leaving a few tips to get you started. I also suggested a few cookbooks at the end that can get you inspired.

  • MSG will work best with meat, poultry, fish, seafood, vegetables, egg dishes as well as soups and gravies. Those dishes will naturally have flavours that can be enhanced by a pinch of MSG. 

  • If you’re running short on time and you want a rich comforting dinner but you forgot to put your slow cooker on in the morning, add a pinch of MSG to deepen the flavour.

  • Note that you don’t need to use too much MSG, for 500g of meat/vegetables you would need 1/2 tsp.

  • And don’t treat MSG like a miracle worker, it won’t rescue a bad meal but it can turn a great dish into an EPIC dish. 

  • When you first start cooking with MSG, start with less than what you think you’ll need and then slowly up your amounts. If you use too much MSG it can make your food taste off.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: 

Chicken Salt 

This is a firm favourite in our house. You can get the salt to the texture that you like, mine is quite flakey and crunchy. If you cook off extra skins you can add them to some softened butter and make the most epic Chicken Butter. 

Ingredients: 

  • 3 chicken skins off a thigh 

  • 50g sea salt flakes 

  • 1/2 tsp MSG

Method: 

  1. Preheat your oven to 220 degrees, on a large parchment lined tray spread out the chicken skins. Make sure that they’re dry of any moisture. Put another piece of parchment on top and cover with another with tray (it will stop the skin from curling up). If you don’t have another tray, don’t worry too much, I’ve done it both ways and it worked just fine.

  2. Bake the skins for 30-35 minutes until all the fat has melted off and you’re left with super crisp, dry skins (note that it may take less or more time, depends on your oven and size of the skins). Take out of the oven and leave to cool

  3. For the next step, you can either use a pestle & mortar, spice grinder or a food processor. I used a pestle & mortar for this batch but will probably use the food processor next time. 

  4. Put the skins, the salt and the MSG in whatever vessel you’re using and grind the salt to your desired consistency. 

  5. Sprinkle on fries, buttered toast, focaccias and whatever else your heart desires. 

WHERE TO BUY

You can buy MSG in Asian Supermarkets, but if getting to the shops is tricky during this lockdown, it’s always Sous Chef for me. Once opened, transfer into a jar with a lid. Some local Asian supermarkets in your area might do home deliveries, it’s always worth checking. 

Who to follow: my favourite top 3 advocates for MSG: MiMi Aye, Dave Chang, Pippy Eats.

What to watch: Ugly Delicious S1 E7 ‘’Fried Rice’’ 

Cookbook to explore: Mandalay, Momofuku, Dumplings and Noodles 

A podcast to listen to: The Long Fuse from This American Life 

More to read: Review of alleged reaction to monosodium glutamate and outcome of a multicenter double-blind placebo-controlled study ; How MSG got bad rep: flawed science and xenophobia ; But what does Umami taste like?

Discovery of the week: Bird Kitchen Clothing stocks issues of Cherry Bombe.


Well, that’s that, it’s good to be back. I hope you enjoyed this issue. I promise that next issue won’t take as long and I am getting back into the groove of things. 

And just to finish off, one final thing: “No one ever said Doritos made them sick. Look on the package. There’s MSG.” — David Chang

Anya xx 

Coming up next : hibiscus, the fragrant flower native to many cuisines. 

 If you enjoyed this issue of Appetite, you can buy me a Ko-Fi to help fuel the next issue