Another maligned additive

Apropos of knowing whats what on your processed-food ingredients list in addition to high fructose cs, dont forget MSG. I'm reminded of this as I perused the just arrived Art of Eating, Edward Behr's excellent and elegant quarterly in which Rowan Jacobsen discusses the issue of Umami, also the subject of a recent book called The Fifth Taste by Anna and David Kasabian. Umami can be described as a kind of deep savoryness that you get from tomatoes and fish sauce and mushrooms, and Jacobsen's article is the most lucid and concise discussion of umami I've read. (One great source of umami, Jacobsen tells us, is breast milk: add a little breast milk to your bechamel sauce for a je ne sais quoi that will have your guests clamoring for more!)

About MSG, the effective part of which is an amino acid called glutamate, he correctly writes: MSG has taken a bad rap. It's effective as a taste enhancer but by the 1970s many second-rate restaurants had a heavy hand with the MSG, and it was blamed for Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: symptoms of headaches, dizziness, and nausea after eating food to which large quantities of MSG have been added. Chinese Restaurant Syndrome has been debunked, and MSG now has a fairly clean bill of health, but it is still virtually synonymous with artificial food additive.

All true. Even in large quantities, MSG isn't apparently harmful and few people actually have an uncomfortable sensitivity to it. It was originally derived from seaweed, that is, it's natural. But in my opinion umami is best enlisted in your dishes via foods rather than MSG. Try adding a few drops of good fish sauce, nam pla or nouc mam, to your macaroni and cheese and see for yourself.

4 thoughts on “Another maligned additive”

  1. Sheesh. Seems like everyone in the world gets their AoE before we do here in California. It’ll still be two to three weeks before ours gets here, based on the note on the site that it was shipped in late June.

  2. David and Anna were here at the Culinary a few weeks back. Gave an interesting lecture over Umami and their latest cookbook. One of the most interesting parts of the lecture, was the data concerning responses to polling over MSG effects. Went from virtually everyone having symptons to virtually no one over three or so decades.

  3. You could also argue that salt is best added to dishes via food as well. I think the issue isn’t so much the source of MSG but thoughtfulness in how it’s used.

  4. Brings to mind Steingarten’s hilarious piece “Why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?” Honestly, MSG is probably the least of your worries when ordering chinese take-out. Most people actually get sick from it due to rice left out to cool, which ferments and becomes toxic.
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