The MSG Dilemma

It’s almost inevitable that at some point in the career of an Asian chef, one faces the big decision: MSG—To use? Or not to use? In some Asian countries, such as Thailand where I come from, it’s not uncommon to find a bag of Ajinomoto, the common household brand of MSG, in the pantry. And you just add it like you would salt.

Monosodium Glutamate, at first sight, looks like sugar or salt. Upon closer inspection, you will notice that each grain is like a tiny stick—long and slim. When you taste it straight up it’s kind of salty…but then it’s also a little sweet, with a presence of that je ne sais quoi that prevents you from eating just one piece of Doritos, which of course, contains MSG. Most Thai and Chinese restaurants here in SF order it in 50lb sacks. It’s like an added assurance for good, addictive flavor. As a Thai chef, I am faced with many questions: is that cheating? Is it bad for you? Does it really make a big difference?

I see many diners turn away when they find out that the restaurant uses MSG, thinking that it’s going to give them cancer, a headache, or maybe green spots on their arms…I’m not sure, I’ve had many people report so many different reactions to MSG it’s kind of fascinating. I personally find that in very large amounts, it makes me feel insatiably thirsty and leaves kind of a numb, worn-out feeling on my tongue. But other than that it’s fine. On Food Detective, a Food Network show, an experiment was conducted and they discovered that MSG side effects are actually placebo—they only happen when diners who claim to be sensitive to MSG were told (falsely) that there is MSG in the food. No studies have proven that MSG, in the normal amounts that are used in food at least, is bad for you, which is why it remains a legal food additive worldwide.

When you are in the Asian restaurant community you hear lots of MSG stories. One was of an old Korean cook who worked in a restaurant that decided to stop adding MSG, but the cook was so unconfident without it that he would sneak it in from home and used it when working. He was just afraid people wouldn’t like his food….it’s kind of cute in my opinion.

A bag of MSG (this one is Ajinomoto, Thai version) you can buy from the store

I am currently working on a menu for new restaurant project with a group of Thai people who have owned Thai restaurants previously and share the same fear that without the magic powder, food wouldn’t be good enough. We went back and forth arguing if we should use MSG until I finally grew tired and said, “Okay, you want me to use MSG? I’ll use it.” So the debate ended. Came food tasting day, as everyone was eating, they asked, “Is there any MSG in these?” To which I said, “No.” They said, “Hmm. Tastes good.” I rest my case.

Now, here is my philosophy behind that belief. I don’t think it’s going to kill me or give people hives; I just think it’s cheating. As a chef, I believe that a true accomplishment is when you take plain, simple, natural ingredients and manipulate them into something wonderful.  An artificial enhancer gives you an excuse to care less about bringing out the best in food, because now you can just cover it up with a false sense of tastiness. Using MSG is like finding out that the really hot girl you’re dating is botoxed and siliconed…

Food should be made of things that are natural. Yes, you can argue that MSG is somewhat natural…because glutamate, the molecule responsible for that tasty effect, occurs naturally in some food such as tomatoes and cheese.  And in fact, the slogan of Ajinomoto in Thailand goes, “Extracted From Natural Ingredients.” But to get the amount of glutamate in a teaspoon of MSG, you’d have to add a pound and a half of cheddar cheese to your dish….which is not something you would ever “naturally” do now, is it?

Having said that I do very much enjoy an MSG-filled bowl of ramen every once in a while, and I’m thankful they exist. It’s just not something I would personally want to be known for.

But I’m curious…what do other foodists think about the use MSG in restaurants?


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