By Fuchsia Dunlop, the author of Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 18/02/07):
Today the Chinese Year of the Pig begins, and Americans across the country will venture to their local Chinatowns for a festive meal. Yet despite the enduring popularity of Chinese food, many still see it as strictly a down-market cuisine, more the stuff of cheap takeout than one of the world’s great culinary cultures. In the old days of chop suey and egg foo yung, this reputation may have been justified, but now that fine and authentic Chinese dining is available in the United States (if you know where to look for it), why do so many people still think of it as junky?
Looming large as an explanation is the use of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, in Chinese kitchens. For restaurant chefs and Chinese home cooks, MSG is a ubiquitous seasoning, considered as “normal” as salt, soy sauce and vinegar. Yet for many Americans, the fine white powder is a sinister food additive, tainted by association with industrialized food production and the garish, over-the-top flavors of packaged snacks.
And, ever since 1968, when The New England Journal of Medicine used the headline “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” over a letter from a doctor complaining that Chinese restaurant food gave him numbness in his neck and palpitations, it has also been fingered with medical suspicion.
While around a third of Americans say they believe that MSG makes them ill, reputable medical studies have shown that only a tiny proportion of people truly react to it, and then only when it is administered in large oral doses on an empty stomach. All this was explained, and the restaurant syndrome fully debunked, in great detail by the food writer Jeffrey Steingarten in a 1999 essay for Vogue magazine titled “Why Doesn’t Everybody in China Have a Headache?”
In the absence of medical evidence of any harmful physiological effects of MSG, the fact that the Chinese use it while Americans not of Chinese descent generally don’t creates a serious cultural barrier to the mainstream appreciation of Chinese food. Isn’t it time, perhaps, to cast off our prejudices and take a cool, steady look at MSG?
MSG is not, of course, a traditional Chinese seasoning. It was discovered in 1908 by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, who was trying to pinpoint the source of the intense deliciousness of broth made from kombu seaweed. In his laboratory, he isolated the natural glutamates in the seaweed, and to their marvelous taste he gave the name “umami,” derived from the Japanese word for “delicious.” His work led directly to the industrial manufacture in Japan and then worldwide of MSG.
Still, MSG was long considered simply to be a flavor enhancer, with little or no taste of its own. In recent years, however, there has been growing acceptance of the existence of a so-called fifth taste — an addition to the traditional quartet of sweet, sour, salty and bitter — known through an emerging consensus by Ikeda’s term, umami. Our tongues, biologists have shown, have distinct receptors that pick up on the taste of MSG and a wider family of umami compounds, and some of our brain cells respond specifically to umami.
The umami taste comes from the building blocks of proteins, amino acids and nucleotides, which include not only glutamates but also inosinates and guanylates. These delicious molecules appear when animal and vegetable proteins break down, for example in the ripening of Parmigiano cheese or prosciutto di Parma. Industrially made MSG is a chemically “neat” form of one of the umami compounds that delight our taste buds when they occur naturally in cheese, ham andseaweed, just as salt is a “neat” form of the saltiness of seawater and white sugar of the sweetness of sugar cane. Is it any worse for us than refined salt and sugar?
Western chefs, food writers and consumers are only now cottoning onto the existence of umami and its power as a culinary concept. In China, however, it has long been part of the daily vocabulary of the kitchen. Chinese chefs talk often of “xian wei” — their term for umami. They use many ingredients that are naturally rich in it — Yunnan ham, dried scallops and shiitake mushrooms — to enhance the flavors of their stocks and sauces (just as an Italian cook might use grated Parmigiano or truffles to enhance the umami taste of a dish of pasta). They talk of “ti xian wei” (“bringing out the umami”) in their cooking through the judicious application of salt, sugar, chicken fat and, nowadays, MSG.
Bad Chinese chefs, of course, just use MSG as a substitute for good ingredients and properly made stocks, just as bad American food companies cook up snack foods made from fat and carbohydrates laced with salt and sugar. But top Chinese chefs also use it, to refine and elevate flavors. There may be no need to add MSG to a delicate soup made from chicken, ham and dried scallops. But in some culinary contexts, it works wonders: a little MSG mixed with salt and sesame oil can lift the flavor of a simple bamboo shoot salad, or add a dash of ecstasy to a stir-fry of pea shoots and garlic. If you didn’t know it was MSG, you would simply find it delicious.
In the past, I was as closed-minded on the subject of MSG as the purists and hypochondriacs. When I started cooking and writing about Chinese food more than a decade ago, I decided not to use MSG. I wanted to stick up for proper ingredients and traditional cooking methods, and help to rehabilitate the reputation of Chinese cuisine by showing that it didn’t require this reviled additive.
But these days I’m not so sure. The scientific evidence for umami is persuasive, and as a concept it makes sense of a great deal of traditional culinary theory. I see brilliant chefs in China making subtle and skillful use of MSG. And if some outstanding Western chefs — like Heston Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck restaurant in England has three Michelin stars — are willing to risk ridicule and experiment with its culinary potential, perhaps it’s time I should as well. Intellectual curiosity is, tradition has it, a hallmark of the Year of the Pig.