I Want My MSG


This editorial originally ran in Giant Robot 66 (July-August 2010). Seems like a long time ago but my position hasn’t changed. Any typos or misinformation stand as well.

Decades before children’s toys made in China were discovered to be adorned with lead-based paint or White Rabbit Candy was found to include Melamine, there was monosodium glutamate. The fear it inspired was big enough to not only inspire a disease (“Chinese Food Syndrome”) but also start an industry (“No MSG” neon signage for restaurants).

But if the crystalline form of MSG was patented by Professor Kikunae Ikeda and marketed by Ajinomoto in Japan in 1908, why is it associated with Chinese food? And why do Cheetos, Doritos, and KFC get a pass on containing the ingredient but not kung pao chicken? And aren’t the symptoms somewhat random and unproven anyway?

It’s obvious to me that the demonization of MSG is nothing more than thinly veiled China-bashing, sadly carried on by celebrity chefs from Martin Yan to Mr. Chow to Philippe Chow, who turn out to be nothing but Charlies in the kitchen.

I recall my grandmother, who moved from China to the United States in the 1930s, adding Ac’cent (an American brand of MSG) to just about everything she made, and she was healthy into her eighties.

Americans glorify the eating of bacon, donuts, lard, and a host of other much unhealthier foods for the sake of being rebellious, comforted, or hedonistic, and I think the same should be done with MSG but in the name of Yellow Power.

The challenge is to eat MSG with as much purpose as pride. Because it comes in a crystallized powder form, it isn’t visible like mayonnaise (the White Pride condiment). Sprinkling it into your food as it’s being prepared isn’t as dramatic as deep-frying (which has been claimed not just by the South but also by the carnie sub-culture).

So how can you fly the flag?

Boycotting restaurants that advertise “No MSG” is an obvious step, but a more active route is carrying a box with you everywhere you go. MSG is rather cheap and usually available in the Oriental Foods aisle at supermarkets that cater to lower tax brackets.

It might be most effective to add MSG to your food while cooking it, but that is just selfish and benefits nothing except your palate. A more subversive strategy is to bring out a box of the substance in public places–a restaurant, your break room, a picnic–and simply sprinkle a spoonful over whatever it is that you’re eating.

The first few times I put the box on a table in public weren’t easy and, to be honest, I still haven’t done it while dining out with my young daughter. Heads turn, eyes glare, and mouths clench tight. But I know that behind the haters’ pursed lips, salivary glands are gushing at the very thought of the forbidden “fifth flavor.”

Supposedly, MSG unlocks a food’s hidden flavor that stands apart from the traditional four: sweet, salty, bitter, sour. It was first described by the Japanese inventor as “umami,” or savoriness, and is a riff off of the glutamates found naturally in dried seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese.

Most often, I add the flavorful crystals to my lunch–typically leftover Chinese food made by my in-laws. Again, I dust it onto my food only after leaving the kitchen and entering the office so others can see.

I’ve even been adding it by the spoonful to non-Chinese food, such as Mexican leftovers and delivered pizza. But that doesn’t make it fusion cuisine and it isn’t even that weird; MSG is found in just about all store-bought tortilla chips as well as most pizzas from chain restaurants.

Chinese patriots aren’t alone in the fight to rescue MSG’s reputation. There are also foodies who have joined the cult of umami, flocking to themed restaurants not only in Los Angeles and San Francisco but Boston, Miami, and Westchester. They may see a difference between “their” hip glutamates and MSG, but we know the truth.

And what about the snobs who will eat nicely packaged Japanese crackers, seaweed snacks, or bricks of ramen that are loaded with MSG, but scoff at the suggestion of eating Cantonese diner food? Korean, Vietnamese, and other Asian cuisines use MSG, as well, but also manage to avoid the stigma suffered by Chinese food and injustice directed at Chinese people.

Fighting a war by oneself can become lonely, so I’ve been offering my box of MSG to others in the office–namely, volunteers and interns. Most politely decline, but one was quick to add it to a slice of pizza when I ordered pies during deadline. In the evening, she claimed the powder made her parched during her drive home, but I think that’s just because I was too cheap to order drinks.

Headaches, heart palpitations, numbness, diarrhea, swelling, and chills–the list of alleged symptoms goes on for pages and everyone’s reactions are different. I’m not saying that no one suffers them, but isn’t fear the real cause? Fear of a communist cuisine served on a round table, family style? Fear of laundry owners that know your stains and secrets? Fear of economic domination by a nation of billions?

But these days Chinese culture is also cool culture, as evidenced in fields such as modern architecture, contemporary art, and new cinema. This is the time to eat MSG with pride. This is the time to promote monosodium glutamate as the real MSG, while Madison Square Garden is home to losing basketball and hockey, and the Michael Schenker Group’s legion of headbangers is losing its hair and hearing.

So pile on the MSG and share it generously–but in moderation. I don’t want to see your eyes bleed.