MSG: Getting a New Lease of Life

19 March, 2020

Monosodium glutamate, aka MSG – the umami-rich artificial food enhancer common in SE Asian cooking and many processed foods – fell out of flavour with Western diners back in the 1960s. This was almost entirely down to it being blamed for causing headaches, dizziness and dehydration when eaten, something that became known as ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ (a term that was even added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1968). However, repeated research has shown that it is actually not linked to any such symptoms, but even so on the whole it still retains this stigma, especially in the West.

In fact glutamic acid, which is a key component of MSG, is a naturally occurring substance that gives foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms, seaweed, soy sauce, miso paste and cheeses their savoury umami flavour – the main reason why MSG is still so popular in Asian foods. Adding MSG can even make dishes healthier as it contains only one-third the amount of sodium that regular salt does, and using it reduces the need to add high levels of salt to dishes

The umami taste was first described and named by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda back in 1908, who then went on to patent a way to stabilise glutamate by mixing it with salt and water, thus creating what is now known as MSG. He subsequently started to manufacture and sell this new product through his company, Ajinomoto (the essence of taste), which remains one of the world’s biggest producers of MSG today.

Given that umami-rich dishes such as ramen and kimchee have become increasingly popular over the past few years, it’s no surprise that some chefs are starting to re-introduce MSG into their dishes, as well as develop their own versions. So it seems that this versatile, yet much-maligned ingredient may actually now be getting a new lease of life.

At Hot Lola’s in Arlington, Virginia, USA Chef Kevin Tien uses MSG crystals in the preparation of his fried chicken sandwiches – it works much like regular salt to tenderise and brine the chicken prior to frying, and in London, Jewish-style Monty’s Deli add a dash of MSG to its matzo ball soup to give a greater depth of flavour. Andy Ricker, who owns Michelin starred Pok Pok Thai restaurant in New York uses MSG to, in his own words, ‘beef up the beefy flavour’ in the dish jin tup roht dii, which is served at another of his restaurants, Whiskey Soda Lounge in Portland, Oregon. Other chefs who sing the praises of it include Heston Blumenthal, Roy Choi and Grant Achatz of Chicago’s 3 Michelin Star Alinea restaurant, who lists MSG as one of his top three kitchen staples along with kosher salt and black pepper.

Even the world’s biggest restaurant chain, McDonalds is developing a version of its fried chicken sandwiches with added MSG, which is not that surprising given that rival American chain Chick-fil-A has had huge success with its MSG flavoured classic chicken sandwich.

Momofuku founder Dave Chang, is another self-confessed fan of MSG. However he doesn’t use the additive itself, but rather has developed his own range of seasoned salts that mimic the flavour enhancement of MSG, by using ingredients that are naturally high in glutamic acid, like tamari, kelp and mushroom powder.

MSG is also a key ingredient in Maggi Seasoning, which is described as having a flavour part way between soy and Worcestershire sauce. This old-school condiment is increasingly being name-checked on modern menus, such as at New York’s Italian restaurant La Ventura which serves Maggi marinated olives. Japanese Kewpie Mayo is another condiment that contains MSG and it is now being used more and more by Western chefs who prize its enhanced mayonnaise flavour – as David Chang simply puts it, ‘Kewpie is the best mayonnaise in the world because it has MSG.’

Despite finding this new-found acceptance with some Western chefs and consumers there remain many widely held misconceptions about MSG and a large number of people still think of it as a dangerous and unhealthy food additive. Whether most diners actually buy into the idea of MSG in their food remains to be seen, but at the very least, it will continue to be a niche ingredient, used and appreciated by those in the know.