By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
MSG — monosodium glutamate, flavor enhancer for Asian foods — is sort of my oppressor.
I know you readers would be shocked that I, being a frequent diner at Asian restaurants, don’t care for MSG. A small amount of glutamic powder can do wonders for our taste buds.
But excessive consumption can cause harm. Although it doesn’t give me headaches or allergies like it does for some people, the consequences are negative. And very irritating…
I patronize Asian restaurants, as many of the owners are my customers. When I cover events for Asian Weekly, I just can’t resist Asian snacks. Even mainstream restaurants and hotels serve food with MSG nowadays.
I was raised with MSG. My grandmother would put that stuff like salt and pepper in every dish, including soup. We never questioned what we ate. The truth is, we didn’t have the knowledge and insight to question what we were being fed at the time. My family always had a bottle of Ajinomoto in Hong Kong since I was a child. Was Japan the first one to discover that sucker?
People are smart now. They want to know what they eat, they read food labels diligently, and demand transparency from food manufacturers.
According to Wikipedia, a German chemist first discovered glutamic acid through gluten with sulfuric acid in 1866. In 1908, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University identified the glutamic substance through kombi seaweed when his wife cooked soup noodles for him. What is brilliant about Ikeda is, he patented it. The Suzuki brothers produced it commercially in 1909 as Aji-no-moto, the essence of taste. For marketing purposes, some Asian studies even claimed that consuming MSG will make kids smart.
Studies have found that children should not eat more than 5 grams a day, and adults shouldn’t be consuming more than 6 grams. Excessive amounts can cause physical reactions, such as overheating the body and over-stimulating the brain and stomach.
“Do you really have to use MSG?” I asked some Chinese chefs in Hong Kong years ago.
“No MSG, no chef,” one replied. “Many would deny it. But they do.” In a cooking competition for top chefs in Hong Kong, my late mother-in-law recalled that no Chinese chefs were allowed to bring in any aids. That means, no MSG. This would be the only way to reveal who really was the master.
But no, the winner did sneak in MSG. How? He brought with him a towel for wiping his hands after washing. The towel was soaked with MSG.
Today, many successful restaurants have advertised that they don’t use MSG at all. One chef said, “I don’t use MSG, just glutamate powder.” The fact is, there is not a big difference between MSG and glutamate powder, depending on the kind you buy.
It’s not so simple to shun glutamate in your foods. Many common foods, such as walnuts, fresh tomato juice, soy sauce, shrimp, seaweed, parmesan cheese, mushroom, beef, eggs, chicken, milk, spices, fish sauces, and boullion and broths, have some kind of glutamate.
The good news is you can produce flavor enhancers yourself without chemicals.
To write this article, I polled eight of my employees. None of them use MSG at home. Salt and perhaps a little sugar for stir-fried vegetables would be good enough and no MSG, one staff member said.
Another said, “You get to enjoy the natural flavor of your food. You will develop different taste buds.” I have trained myself to appreciate both fresh and well-seasoned food. I cook at home with a little soy sauce or salt.
But if you dine outside, some chefs prepare food with MSG in salads, entrees, and desserts. It’s just a matter of how much.
My staff member Nancy makes her own glutamate powder. She blends dried shrimps into powder and even mushroom stalks. You can use one or the other or mix them together.
Several strong-flavored vegetables such as broccoli have glutamate elements. You can easily make your own glutamic sauce. Also, the choices of seasonings in Asian supermarkets are just overwhelming. You can pick the ones that best suit your taste and benefit your health.
How to conquer MSG
People suffer from all kinds of reactions after eating MSG. For me, the worst is, it affects my sleep quality at night. It can keep me wide-awake till 3 a.m. if I have too much MSG at dinner. Thank God, I am the only one in my family who has to bear that consequence of having MSG late in the evening. I am grateful that it doesn’t affect me if I eat it at lunch or before 3 p.m.
My challenge is, I have to attend many dinners. How do I get around it? Many community members have noticed that I barely eat, or I will leave without finishing my dinner. The reason is, I have already eaten before the event. I show up merely to pay respect to the hosts and the dignitaries. I go there to work, not to eat.
If I dine out with my friends and family, I can easily tell the waitress, “No MSG.” The restaurants might have already marinated some of their meats, but they will go light on MSG.
Another alternative to defuse MSG is to have a glass of juice during the meal. A glass of Pepsi works, too. Or enjoy a dessert after the meal. The sweet taste will lighten the MSG effect on your throat or tongue. When I go home, I eat a whole bunch of fruits to “wash” away the MSG effect. Before I go to bed, a cup of honey water also helps.
With this article, I hope community leaders will understand and forgive why I don’t eat much at community dinners. Even without eating much, I enjoy many of the events because of the connections I make and seeing old friends.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.