MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is getting a new look from local chefs, who are reevaluating the science and the popular perception of the much-maligned seasoning.
With the opening of his new Chinese restaurant, Lionhead, still months away, Jerry Traunfeld has much to worry about and many decisions to make. But this may be his thorniest quandary: to MSG or not to MSG.
Traunfeld is famous, one of the most respected chefs in the country. He made Woodinville’s Herbfarm into a showcase of what’s best about the Pacific Northwest for 17 years, then opened his excellent Indian-inflected, locally focused restaurant, Poppy, in 2008. Lionhead will eventually be Poppy’s next-door neighbor.
Traveling in China, doing research for Lionhead, Traunfeld encountered MSG everywhere. “It’s as common as salt there,” he said recently, “and it really kind of defines the flavor profile of the cuisine.”
But for Lionhead, he’s hesitant. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be banned from the kitchen …” he said. “If we did use it, I wouldn’t hide it.”
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No matter how famous a chef gets, he or she still has to cater to the public, and many people still harbor a prejudice against MSG. But as Asian restaurants proliferate — as pho, ramen and Korean barbecue go through the trend cycle — the public might be surprised to learn that some top Seattle upscale places (and one national one) have never been MSG-free.
Never mind that anyone who eats Nacho Cheese Doritos or most other flavored chips has been eating MSG. One of the 11 herbs and spices in KFC: MSG. That famous Chick-fil-A sandwich and old favorite Campbell’s alphabet soup both have it. Check the ingredients on your ranch dressing, too.
Has MSG already regained mainstream acceptance, without anyone realizing it?
The fifth taste
In 1907, the story goes, Japanese chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda ate a bowl of his wife’s soup. What was so good about it — so richly brothy, rewardingly savory? He took it to his lab to analyze its seaweed-based broth.
Ikeda isolated the kelp’s glutamic component, an amino acid he noted was also found in meat juice. To deliver this deliciousness conveniently, he attached it to sodium in a powder: MSG. To talk about it, he coined the term “umami” — his new, fifth taste to go with sour, sweet, salty and bitter.
The same glutamates also occur naturally in mushrooms and Parmesan cheese; think of how these foods almost ineffably taste alike, and that’s the taste of umami. And umami — the source of recent fascination and celebration among food lovers — is the taste of MSG.
The use of MSG spread, in Asia and beyond. Then in 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a Chinese-American physician describing symptoms he’d experienced subsequent to eating at American Chinese restaurants — including “general weakness and palpitation.”
The doctor didn’t posit any particular culprit, and according to food historian Ian Mosby, the journal itself treated the flood of letters from fellow sufferers with skepticism: This was anecdote, not science.
Nevertheless, The New York Times coined the term “Chinese-restaurant syndrome,” and the rap stuck. As studies contradicted each other and methodologies were disputed, Mosby notes, the research centered on Chinese cuisine, though MSG was used in all kinds of food: cereal, TV dinners, frozen vegetables, baby food.
Too much MSG, like too much salt (both contain sodium), might make you feel dehydrated, tired and ill. Likewise, you might feel less than optimal after overindulging in greasy, heavy food at, say, a Chinese restaurant.
But correlation is not causation, and ultimately, there’s been no scientific proof of “why and how [MSG] may cause any illness or safety concern,” explained Dr. Dojin Ryu of Washington State University’s School of Food Science.
A “race issue”
Now, slowly, MSG is being redeemed. Chef and food guru David Chang took up a campaign against the stigma. As Jerry Traunfeld points out, Bon Appétit recently featured a recipe that calls for it (as “optional,” but listed).
Locally, Eric Banh of Seattle’s Monsoon and Ba Bar wrote about using “a touch” in his pho broth in a December 2013 blog post. “That’s right, MSG — it’s not really evil,” Banh wrote, followed by this heretical parenthetical: “(Everything you have heard about monosodium glutamate is wrong. It’s simply a sodium ion attached to a glutamate — a naturally occurring amino acid which is already inside of you every day.)”
He got excoriated for it: “People emailing and trash-talking and saying, ‘My god, I will never go back to his restaurant.’ ”
“People freak out about it,” Banh said. He spares no expense on ingredients for his broth, but, he emphasized, “We can make very good pho, but it will not be fantastic without MSG.”
Banh believes demonization of MSG “is a race issue.” In cuisines that have been considered more elevated than Chinese and Vietnamese, he said, “No one talks about it.” He pointed to Maggi, a popular European seasoning sauce containing MSG, and added, “A lot of chips say ‘monosodium glutamate.’ But people love chips.”
The naysayers didn’t make Banh stop. The pho broth at both Monsoon and Ba Bar still get their touches of MSG; so do Ba Bar’s wok-cooked dishes. “It’s how I grew up,” he said. “I’m still alive today.”
Meanwhile, common prepared Asian condiments such as soy sauce, fish sauce, mirin or black bean sauce often contain MSG, and it’s not necessarily listed on the label.
Rachel Yang, of Trove, Revel and Joule, said her places don’t add MSG outright, but, while most of the products they use are MSG-free, “We don’t go out of our way to avoid it.”Yang‘s mom also used MSG when she was growing up.
Likewise, Pat Chang of Seattle’s new Zhu Dang doesn’t use added MSG. But, she acknowledged, “Traditional condiments have it,” including some they cook with.
“It is much more difficult to cook Chinese food and get that addictive taste people are chasing without MSG,” she said. And “when used judiciously,” she said, MSG “really is harmless. It’s like any other ingredient.”
Chef Mutsuko Soma of Japanese gastropub Miyabi 45th also doesn’t add MSG — at her restaurant, that is. “I use it at home on popcorn,” she said. She gets inquiries about MSG at Miyabi a few times a month. “White people with kids — they ask,” she quipped.
Wildly popular upscale dumpling chain Din Tai Fung isn’t MSG-free, either.
So what will Jerry Traunfeld do?
In a follow-up conversation, he’d made up his mind. “I am planning on using it, in a limited amount,” he said. “I really do feel like it makes a difference in the flavor profile. Especially with something like greens — you put a little in one and not the other, and people are going to like the one with MSG.”
“You have to use it with restraint,” he said.
And, for those who don’t trust the judgment and restraint of a renowned chef, most of the dishes he does use it in will be available MSG-free.