From fried chicken to margaritas, chefs are reinventing MSG and pushing against anti-Asian stigma
Monosodium glutamate is found in all kinds of foods, but is unfairly connected to ‘Chinese food syndrome'
Growing up, MiMi Aye's family dinner table was always set with three shakers: salt, pepper — and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
"It's part of my secret weapons when I cook," said Aye, a Burmese food writer and cookbook author based in the U.K.
"It's not, like, necessarily my favourite thing, but it's really useful. And I hate that it's been demonized to the extent that if someone does use it, they get brigaded" with negative comments online, she told Unforked host Samira Mohyeddin.
Aye is part of a growing chorus of culinary voices making the case that the ingredient — itself historically stigmatized, which can often be traced to anti-Chinese racism — is a game changer when used correctly.
MSG is the shelf-stable version of glutamate, an amino acid that can be found in several kinds of foods, including tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. It's commonly added to processed foods, but can be added to enhance the flavour of savory foods.
Japanese biochemist Kikuane Ikeda developed MSG in 1908, when he sought to identify the source of umami flavour in his wife's dashi broth, which is made out of kombu, or kelp.
It's a key, "not-so-secret" ingredient in Aye's Burmese fried chicken, featuring garlic, ginger, paprika and turmeric.
"You just need a little bit of [MSG]. I put it into the dry rub and it just kicks everything up a notch," she said.
That said, Aye offers alternatives to MSG in her cookbooks, such as miso, if readers prefer.
From classic cookbooks to craft cocktails
The additive received uniquely Canadian praise in the 1966 Centennial Food Guide, written by Janet and Pierre Berton, considered "one of the most classic Canadian cookbooks of all time," said Toronto-based food historian Ian Mosby.
"In fact, Pierre Berton, you know, waxes poetic, [saying] it caused a minor revolution in flavour, making modern foods infinitely more tasty."
Even some bartenders have started using it to create some unexpected libations.
Adding MSG to a gin Manhattan gives it a "rich mouthfeel" and "this really cool, like, beef stock note," said Chris Tunstall, co-owner and mixologist at A Bar Above in San Diego. Adding a few drops of MSG solution to a margarita enhances the tequila, lime and other flavours already present, while adding a distinct savoury note.
WATCH: Chris Tunstall and Unforked host Samira Mohyeddin make MSG margaritas:
"I think in craft cocktails in general, people are pretty excited about new, interesting things. It's kind of the heart of what we do — push boundaries. So from a bartender's perspective, there's been a lot of excitement," he said.
For Tunstall, who is of American and Japanese descent, it's also a way to reconnect with elements of his heritage that he may have once shunned.
"MSG just kind of has this negative connotation in the culinary world, right? But just like anything else, if it's used properly and in a fun way, I think it can really contribute a lot to a drink," he said.
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
MSG exploded in popularity in Asia and then North America following the Second World War, as it helped processed foods, such as a packaged frozen dinner, keep their flavour for longer.
Everything changed thanks to "a single letter" to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, Mosby said.
Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese immigrant living in the U.S., described a numbness in the back of his neck and palpitations after eating at an American Chinese restaurant. He suggested several possible causes, including cooking wine, excessive use of salt and MSG.
According to Mosby, NEJM's editors took the letter half-seriously. But soon, others described similar experiences to the journal, with a wider breadth of symptoms.
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Later that year, an article in the New York Times titled "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Puzzles Doctors" thrust the term into the public consciousness. By the 1970s, Chinese restaurant syndrome had become a widely recognized medical condition.
Mosby found consistent problems with many of the studies from the 1960s through to the '80s. Few of them used the double-blind format, which would compare people who consumed MSG versus those who were given a placebo, he said.
Many of those studies have since been discredited, said Mosby, who summarized his own findings in a meta-analysis in 2009 for the Social History of Medicine journal.
Health Canada describes MSG as "a flavour enhancing ingredient," and it is not regulated as a food additive.
While the government body states the worldwide scientific consensus that it is not a health hazard, it acknowledges that "some individuals who consume MSG may exhibit an allergic-type reaction or hypersensitivity."
It also notes that products with labels like "No MSG added" may be misleading because they may contain other ingredients with naturally occurring glutamates.
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One food industry estimate from the 1980s, Mosby said, suggested that processed food accounted for between 85 and 90 per cent of Canada's MSG supply. Today the "vast majority of MSG'' can be found in food products from bouillon cubes to most flavours of Dorito chips, he said.
"There was always an assumption that it was being used in excess at Chinese restaurants only. It was not [considered] being used in excess in a can of soup, for instance."
From MSG to COVID fears
Negative perceptions of MSG — specifically its use in Chinese cuisine — haven't been entirely dispelled.
Journalist and author Ann Hui saw "the long tail of Chinese restaurant syndrome" at many of the small-town Chinese restaurants while travelling across Canada for her book Chop Suey Nation.
"You'll see signs at the cash register that say 'No MSG,' or restaurant menus that have, like, a stop sign and it says MSG [in the middle] with it crossed out," she said.
The signs are a reminder that Western Chinese food was consciously developed for North Americans' tastes in mind — but also so the restaurant owners, and their families, could make a living in communities that were suspicious, or even hostile, to foreigners, Hui said.
She notes that it isn't hard to draw a line between racist connotations about MSG and Chinese food to more recent incidents of anti-Asian racism in the past year and a half, stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Early on in the pandemic, you heard a lot of discussion, including by very powerful people, about the China virus, about the Wuhan flu ... coming from, you know, potentially unsafe or exotic or foreign foods…. Much of this stuff has since been dispelled, but a lot of people continue to believe it," she said.
"It's just history repeating itself, over and over and over again."
Aye's heard similar accounts.
"I'm not even Chinese, but I've had abuse from people saying, 'Oh you know, all these Asians, they eat bats and they eat MSG, and no wonder we're all in trouble,' " she said.
"People have said to me ... it is poison. They say it's toxic. They say it's a killer. And it's all nonsense."
She hopes that helps people see it as simply another useful ingredient.
"I wrote a whole essay in my last book about why MSG is fine. I also ended [it] by saying: 'But if you don't use it, I don't care.' "
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Roshini Nair and Levi Garber.