Will The Umami Craze Rectify MSG’s Tarnished Image?

Which is okay, since MSG might not be all that bad in the first place. Just ask chef David Chang.

Image: Buzzfeed; Fresh Reform

Image: Buzzfeed; Fresh Reform

The story of Mono Sodium Glutamate, aka MSG, has all the makings of a blockbuster: a wronged hero, a stray rumor, a crazed mob, a fall from grace, and, finally, sweet sweet retribution. At least, this is the version of the MSG story as narrated by Buzzfeed contributor John Mahoney.

In 5000 words, Mahoney spins a fascinating tale of a wronged seasoning that would have had a prime spot on our condiment tray, right alongside salt, pepper, and that bottle of rooster-sauce, had it not been for a stray letter from a Chinese-American doctor musing about the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” which ended up in a 1968 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine—and the incredibly shoddy research studies that followed thereafter.

Umami is propelling MSG’s gradual return to grace. This comeback is being lead, of course, by some of the most innovative chefs of our time, including David Chang, Nathan Myhrvold, and Heston Blumenthal.

MSG, which was at one point widely used in American processed foods and at stateside Chinese restaurants, has since garnered a seriously bad rap. An entire generation swore off the stuff, blaming it for many of their problems, including blood pressure, kidney complications, depression, diabetes, migraines, and so on. All the pro-MSG research that came afterwards, arguing that MSG couldn’t be a culprit of these ailments any more than salt could, proved to be too little too late. The previous slander against MSG had solidified public opinion.

Despite all of the MSG paranoia of the ’80s, many of the foods we eat today still contain the ‘offending’ ingredient. “If you eat Doritos, you’ve just eaten MSG,” writes Mahoney. “Same with practically any other snack with cheese powder, Kentucky Fried Chicken, many types of cold cuts, canned soups, soy sauce, and hundreds of other processed foods.” But before you run screaming to your refrigerator, vowing to purge your household of all MSG-laden products, take a moment to mull over Mahoney’s single-word argument in favor of the white crystalline powder: Umami.

Umami is that mysterious fifth taste that has become the buzzword for the present day food-obsessed, a taste that has glutamic acid at it’s heart, much like MSG does. It was Umami, and one scientist’s efforts to understand and capture it, that lead to MSG in the first place. And it is Umami that is propelling MSG’s gradual return to grace. This comeback is being lead, of course, by some of the most innovative chefs of our time, including David Chang, Nathan Myhrvold, and Heston Blumenthal.

Mahoney writes about David Chang’s Momofuku research and development lab in New York’s East Village, where foods like mashed pistachios, lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes are fermented, in the pursuit of capturing umami and glutamic acid. It’s a pursuit that’s made Mahoney sympathetic to MSG’s cause. “The chemical, glutamic acid, is the same, whether it is created by fermentation in a factory or in the R&D lab of Momofuku,” Mahoney explains. “The question for Chang comes down to why the stuff called MSG is demonized, and the “natural” evaporated kombu salt is considered gourmet.”

We agree that it’s time for MSG’s tarnished image to be rectified. And we couldn’t have picked a better crusader than David Chang to lead the cause. The chef argues, “The funny thing is that I can make some stupid fucking hipster dish with Dorito powder and serve it on roasted corn with fucking lime juice and people would eat the shit out of it. If I say, ‘That’s got MSG in it,’ no one’s going to say, ‘Well, that sounds delicious.’ But if I put Doritos on it…for fuck’s sake, Taco Bell’s marketing it directly.”

For an even more in-depth look at MSG and Umami, watch David Chang talk at last year’s MAD Symposium:

[via Buzzfeed]

  • Robert D’Arensbourg

    ‘Chefs’ are a foulmouthed breed of cooks. Let them eat MSG. I get real umami flavor with any number of fermented, aged, and natural ingredients.

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