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Debunking MSG: The Secret to Umami 

I watch the dried noodles plunge into the boiling water. Broken pieces bubble up to the surface doing their little happy dance. In my hands are two sachets, one for powder seasoning, and the other for a delectable mixture of kecap manis, sambal chili, and seasoning oil (of what, I don’t know). All these ingredients together will create the most umami-rich instant noodles I’ve ever encountered: indomie. This is the stuff of my childhood. 

Indomie is the instant version of mie goreng: fried Indonesian noodles. Its richness normally comes from sweet, aromatic kecap manis, which has the depth of molasses with the savouriness of classic soy sauce. It’s the heart and soul of Indonesian cooking. But Indomie takes the flavors up another notch with the addition of a beloved ingredient: MSG. MSG enhances everything enticing in mie goreng, giving it a slight savory punch after every bite.

When I turned 13 years old, I suddenly saw MSG not as the friendly addition to my noodles, but as an evil substance disguised in benign powder form. As our bodies change in the confusing midst of puberty, so did my concern over health—or rather, the aesthetics of health. My mother would scold me for pouring the entire MSG packet into my Indomie, as if cutting half would save my health, or would somehow cancel out the years of using a full packet. Some of my white friends would tell stories of their mothers consuming MSG in their Chinese food and having headaches, or even heart issues, only a few hours afterwards. Diet magazines insisted that MSG was a health-clogging substance produced in Chinese factories. And I believed them. 

Let’s start here: MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It was discovered in 1907 by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda. He explored the tastes of rich foods like kelp and meat, coming across a salt form of the amino acid glutamate. Glutamate is found in all kinds of food, and is even synthesized in our own body. MSG is simply a soluble form of glutamate. 

This amino acid can naturally be found in tomatoes, mushrooms, meat, and parmesan, and is the secret ingredient to what we call umami. Ikeda identified a fifth dimension of flavor when trying kombu dashi, a rich Japanese broth made of kelp. Umami covers the tongue with a long-lasting sensation of ultimate savouriness and fullness. It is a depth of flavor achieved by no other. Think of the richness of a miso soup, its broth coating your lips, or a classic Italian pomodoro with fresh tomatoes and basil dancing on your tongue. It’s core ingredient? Glutamate. 

For years, I’d put just half of the Indomie seasoning packet, tasting half of the flavor, and half of the richness. This demonization of MSG can be traced all the way back to the 1960s, when the New England Journal of Medicine published an incident involving Cantonese physician, Robert Ho Man Kwok, who experienced a dizzying array of symptoms after eating at a Chinese restaurant. The article insisted that MSG was to blame. From there came a bombardment of similar anecdotal stories, further legitimized by the New York Times article titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” How did one man’s word become a health gospel?

Beyond a scientific mishap, the stigmatization of MSG has a direct correlation to the racism and xenophobia experienced by Asian cultures in the United States. Saying no to MSG not only became ingrained in the popular health and wellness lexicon, but a symptom to the deeper disregard of Asian customs and traditions. Like everything else associated with Asian culture, Asian food, specifically Chinese food, was shunned away as dirty and unhealthy. For generations, Chinatowns across the country were associated with slums and blighted areas, a place for sexual deviancy and crime, where children are left to play on the dirty streets surrounded by rotting fruit. This was the narrative created by white America, and it is ignorant to assume that these perceptions don’t trickle down to every facet of life—including food. 

MSG-related health concerns have since been debunked. MSG is safe for consumption, and cause no headaches, tremors, or heart palpitations—all of which were originally reported from a 6 person anecdotal “study.” But there is still a hesitation against MSG that lingers in food literature. Although umami is an accepted descriptor, to connect umami and MSG, and to dare to say something tastes better with the addition of MSG, seems like food journalist malpractice. 

One day, MSG will slowly get its good reputation back. Yet the narrative of “bad Chinese food” still remains. Bat soup? Covid? We will not forget. 

There’s a painful history behind the foods we eat and the stories we tell about them. As a gustatory community, we have a responsibility to decolonise food literature and approach non-white cultures with the same level of respect and dignity, breaking away from the cycles of shame and the erasure of culture in a country that only made room for the status quo. Maybe sprinkling a little MSG in your meals is the way to go. 

Alas, around three years ago I decided to pour the entire contents of that heavenly umami-filled, MSG-packed seasoning into my Indomie. My taste buds and soul are happier for it. And I have never looked back.

Cover photo courtesy of Choosing Chia

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