Food & Drink

Maligned for decades, MSG comes back

Hirame (flounder) is wrapped in kombu, a seaweed from Japan, and cured for an hour to 90 minutes at Kru, a popular J Street restaurant in Sacramento.
Hirame (flounder) is wrapped in kombu, a seaweed from Japan, and cured for an hour to 90 minutes at Kru, a popular J Street restaurant in Sacramento.

Plenty about monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, is puzzling and peculiar. Indeed, many would argue that the ongoing assault on this ubiquitous flavor enhancer is just wacky.

MSG has its defenders, including some of Sacramento’s top mainstream chefs, but unless you’re a hardcore foodie or culinary insider, probably everything you’ve heard about MSG is wrong.

Is it possible that many of us have expended far too much time and energy through the years awkwardly asking about it at Chinese restaurants, avoiding it whenever possible and repeating claims about it that have long since been debunked?

To this day, a popular and widely respected restaurant like Chinois City Cafe in the Arden-Arcade area of Sacramento notes in small print on its menus that it does not cook with MSG.

“It’s something that goes way back,” said co-owner Terry SooHoo. “We really just assumed also that it was bad, without any scientific facts. But our guests are the ones who perpetuate it. We just have it in fine print on the menu that we don’t use it. We don’t actively promote it as being bad for you.”

When SooHoo ventures out to eat at other Chinese restaurants, “I don’t avoid it. I don’t even ask,” he said. “It’s not us. It’s our guests who are concerned.”

Despite its link to the so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” MSG can be found in nearly every culture and cuisine. MSG is what makes the flavors in your bag of Doritos pop. It’s lurking in all kinds of fast food. It’s found naturally in Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and tomatoes. Canned soup and packages of crackers? More than likely, MSG is the unheralded flavor star in both, sometimes disguised on labels as flavor enhancer E621.

“Working in restaurants for so long, you just keep on looking for other things,” said Michael Thiemann, owner/chef of two acclaimed Sacramento restaurants, Empress Tavern and Mother. “There was a light bulb moment when I was in L.A. at a hipster Mexican restaurant, of all things, had this simple Brussels sprouts dish. I couldn’t figure out why it was so good. Then it hit me – it’s MSG. It couldn’t have been anything else.”

Thiemann began dabbling with MSG and has used it to bring out flavors in certain vegetable dishes, though it’s not something he advertises.

“To me, it’s just another tool, another spice,” he said. “I find nearly all brassicas vegetables – broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages – taste incredible with the smallest dash of MSG. You don’t have to add as much salt and it’s freakishly good.”

Chefs have been using MSG for more than a century and its origins can be traced to Japan, not China. This ubiquitous and much-maligned seasoning salt was discovered by a Japanese chemist, Kidunae Ikeda, who noticed that his wife seasoned her soup with a type of seaweed called kombu.

In 1908, Ikeda named the so-called fifth flavor umami (beyond salty, sweet, sour and bitter) after a chemical analysis showed that the savory note from kombu was from glutamic acid. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid and one of the building blocks of protein.

For 60 years, MSG flourished throughout the world. Simply put, it elevated the flavors of nearly everything in its path, from grains and vegetables to meats and sauces.

Then something went awry. As renowned chef David Chang has put it, MSG became the most vilified ingredient in America, and wrongly so.

“The purpose of using MSG has always been commercial,” said David SooHoo, Terry’s brother and a longtime restaurateur and chef who stopped using MSG in the 1980s. “You can taste the beef flavor of chow mein or chop suey and it tastes like it has twice as much beef when you use MSG. It tricks the taste buds because of the way the brain is wired. Customers leave feeling very happy even though they didn’t eat as much meat.

“It’s not just in Chinese restaurants. Look closely on the labels, and you’ll find it in almost everything.”

In the 1970s, cooking at the family-owned Ming Tree restaurant, David SooHoo said, the kitchen “pioneered cooking with no MSG. Everybody freaked out. Chinese people said, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ But I knew that if you used fresh ingredients and more ingredients, you didn’t need MSG.”

Given the food science era in which we live, it is worth noting that the anti-MSG brigade was inspired by an eminently non-scientific letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968. It was penned by a Chinese American doctor, Robert Kwok, who noted he felt numbness in his arms and neck for two hours after dining at a Chinese restaurant.

The anecdotal contents of that letter took on a life of their own. Other letter writers weighed in, concurring with Kwok, and the subsequent letters were published together under the headline, “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”

A year later, two researchers published a study blaming MSG for Chinese restaurant syndrome. But when their methodology was challenged and they did subsequent blind studies to eliminate biases, MSG, it turned out, was off the hook. No adverse health problems could be detected when measured against a placebo.

But it was too late.

The American dining public made it the villain of the food world and began insisting en masse that Chinese restaurants cook without MSG or at least warn them about which dishes included it. Chinese restaurants had little choice if they wanted to attract a non-Chinese clientele.

But there are signs these days that MSG is on the upswing and the message has begun trickling out that it’s no longer something to fear. Scores of progressive chefs outside of Chinese cuisine have embraced it, albeit in a mostly underground, hush-hush way.

Chang, the owner/chef of the acclaimed Momofuku restaurant group, gave a speech at a food symposium in 2012 he dubbed “MSG: Delicious or Evil?” in which he sought to recast the notorious flavor enhancer as an innocent victim of pseudo-science, innuendo and cultural bias.

Justin Lower, the executive chef at Taylor’s Kitchen in Land Park, has been known to cook with MSG for the staff meal, known in the industry as “family meal.” He likes how it makes the flavors really sing in that coveted “umami” way. He likes the positive reactions he gets from hungry restaurant staffers.

“I always use it for family meal, but it will probably never make it onto the menu because of the stigma,” said Lower, who previously worked in such highly regarded kitchens as Hawks and Enotria.

“I’d like to see it kind of rehabilitated. One of the issues is it doesn’t have a catchy name. If they called it ‘umami salt’ it might have a better chance.”

Bill Ngo, the chef/owner of Kru, uses a type of MSG to cure fish and make stocks at his Japanese restaurant and sushi bar.

“My family is Chinese-Vietnamese and my parents had a Chinese restaurant when I was growing up. I remember seeing them use MSG. It was in the kitchen, so it was a normal thing for me. It’s just another flavoring agent, like salt and sugar.”

Ngo often uses a version of MSG derived from kombu for curing fish at Kru.

“It firms up the fish and adds a certain flavor,” he explained.

When he’s not working, Ngo enjoys going out to eat, especially at hole-in-the-wall Chinese and Vietnamese eateries. One of his favorite places, which we won’t name because of the ongoing stigma, has a deep-fried chicken dish “and they serve it with a side of MSG and white pepper mixed together. They just tell you it’s salt and pepper,” Ngo said.

Ngo says MSG’s reputation is ready to be rehabilitated and he suggests home cooks simply try it for themselves. Though it is available by the bucket at restaurant supply stores, the most common grocery version is Accent seasoning.

“You can just add it to anything to make it taste better,” he said.

After all this time and a stigma that won’t go away, MSG – or, better yet, umami salt – may be ready to come out of hiding.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob