If you’ve ever eaten at a Chinese food restaurant or enjoyed Chinese food take-out in the United States, chances are that you’ve come across the ingredient MSG (monosodium glutamate). Of all the ingredients that make up Chinese cooking and the American Chinese cuisine experience, none are more representative than MSG.
It is not merely an important ingredient for adding and boosting your favorite Chinese food flavors. It also speaks to the evolving history of Chinese cuisine in America and how Chinese culture has altered in the United States over the last nearly two hundred years. The perception and use of MSG have changed dramatically since it was first introduced, and it continues to play a role in how Chinese food is made, consumed, and sold.
Here at Fly By Jing, we’re not just dedicated to sharing the spices and oils that make it easy to begin recreating exciting and delicious Chinese food dishes in your own kitchen. We’re also dedicated to sharing the history and culture surrounding these flavors, to showcase their importance and meaning, and to provide the information home cooks deserve to embark upon their journeys. Here’s what you’ll want to know about the unique and evolving story of MSG.
What Is MSG?
Chances are good that if you’ve heard of MSG, the associated reputation was not one of a flattering nature. Over the years since MSG became a ubiquitous and common part of American Chinese dining, it has represented a history of anti-Chinese American sentiment, xenophobia, and fear mongering.
MSG is derived from glutamic acid, an amino acid. It became known as an ingredient that caused headaches, added to health complications, and generally represented the unhealthy, secretive nature of Chinese cooking. The truth is, MSG is just an ingredient like any other you’ll find in Chinese or any Asian cooking, though its history and use are a lot more interesting.
While MSG has become the villain in recent decades, when it was first created at the turn of the 20th-century, it was a scientific breakthrough to be lauded. Japanese scientist and professor Kikunae Ikeda asked an important question that would shape not only the future of food, but Asian culture in the United States as a whole. He wanted to know what gave the Japanese soup base dashi its meaty flavor, despite being made of seaweed and fish. What could give a dish that savory taste without having any meat?
He began breaking down the organic materials of the seaweed at the base of the dish and, after days of experimentation, had a batch of crystals that resembled table salt that perfectly isolated that flavor Ikeda was searching for. Most essentially, the ingredient worked as a flavor enhancer and boosted the existing flavors in a dish, like drawing out the tastes of the seaweed, which help to make any ingredient bolder and more powerful. Not only had he broken down the flavor to its individual component, so that it could be used in many more dishes, but he broke through an established scientific belief.
Up until 1908 and Ikeda’s seaweed-driven discovery, it was believed that there were four basic tastes or flavor profiles: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. But what Ikeda had found showcased a new flavor, a fifth taste that had long been essential to Chinese and Asian cooking, but was only just becoming understood—umami.
Ikeda capitalized on his new-found savory flavor profiles, and his new ingredient became an overnight success. People used it in-home cooking and claimed that the ability of added MSG to make flavorless dishes bold and delicious was miraculous. After spreading to other countries in Asia, the ingredient came over to the United States, partially through immigration and partly through politics. Specifically, it expanded with the second world war, when soldiers were surviving on bland, boring rations and the chance for meaty and earthy flavoring was too good to pass up.
After the war ended and the soldiers returned, industrialized food produced with the MSG flavoring became commonplace, and the use of the ingredient across the United States became more defined. But not a decade later, a shift in public consciousness meant that the ingredient which had become a staple of Asian American cooking was now, increasingly, a target.
The environmental movement and the push for clean food and water meant that many forms of seasoning and industrial food additives faced scrutiny. After a letter appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine about specific physical symptoms experienced after eating in Chinese restaurants, the die was cast. Similar claims were now coming out of the woodwork, headaches, dizziness, cramping, and indigestion, and this set of side effects came to be known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. The root cause, according to scientists? MSG.
What followed were a series of scientific and social challenges for Chinese American immigrants and Chinese food restaurant owners. The public scorn was associated with racist and discriminatory language and left the restaurant owners as scapegoats in a medical witch hunt that garnered no true results.
This meant that Chinese restaurants had to adapt many existing recipes and, more importantly, shift consciousness surrounding their role as providers. Large signs claiming “no MSG” were placed in windows and touted on menus, and the myth, despite its weak foundations in science, persisted.
That said, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally recognizes MSG as safe to consume, and salad dressings, condiments, bouillons, and fast food frequently contain MSG. In fact, some studies using placebos suggest that adverse effects from MSG consumption can't be reliably triggered, so the actual impact on your health is still relatively unknown. On the other hand, there may be links between MSG and obesity, heart palpitations, and high blood pressure. It becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to this complicated ingredient.
Today, MSG is made from the fermentation of sugar beets or sugar cane, rather than seaweed broth, but its effect on taste remains the same, as it reacts with the glutamate receptors in the body.
MSG as an ingredient is largely a thing of the past, but the umami flavors it is so closely related to continue to thrive and evolve as part of an ever-changing global cuisine world. There is still much to be learned about what Kikunae Ikeda truly discovered and all that it means for the past and future of Asian food and food around the world.
Even without MSG, there are still many ways to achieve umami flavors in your own kitchen. Here are just a few umami-based recipes that you and your loved ones are sure to enjoy. Don’t forget to share your favorites!
Hot and Sour Soup
As the name indicates, hot and sour soup employs a balance of flavors, including spice and sourness, to get the perfect bite every time. If you love umami flavors, then any variation of hot and sour soup is going to be an excellent choice for your next order or home cooked dish. It employs the use of mushrooms and mushroom stock, which are some of the great natural ingredients that add bold umami flavors to your recipe.
Doubanjiang fish is an essential recipe for many feasts and celebrations in China. When you begin cooking it up yourself, you’ll get to enjoy a lot of great umami flavors, which are especially prevalent in seafood and earthly vegetable dishes.
In addition to a whole fish, like sea bass or flounder, douban fish employs classic Chinese flavor pairings and ingredients like garlic, ginger, black vinegar, and Shaoxing wine. It’s an easy seafood recipe to make at home and delivers on bold, earthly tastes which are sure to warm from the inside out.
Dan Dan Noodles
Dan dan noodles first got their names because they were carried on bamboo sticks, also known as dans, and served to travelers passing by. The need for inexpensive and easy-to-cook dishes that could be served on the go meant that the bold flavors of umami-rich ingredients were a perfect fit.
In this dish, you’ll get that great umami flavoring from preserved mustard greens, but there are many ways to add variations of your own. Other ingredients you’ll find in dan dan noodles include chili oil, soy sauce, and chilis. For that perfect blend of hot and umami flavors that you can make at home with ease, dan dan noodles are the way to go.
Chinese American history is long and complex, an evolving and changing story that speaks to the development of new cultural traditions, resilience, and creativity. American immigrants were faced with discrimination and disenfranchisements in the United States, and the roles they played and the meals they created are all part of an essential story that is still unfolding today.
MSG and, to a greater degree, all Chinese American cooking, is part of that story. While many ingredients and recipes in Chinese cooking came from China and other countries around Asia, a new culture of Chinese American cooking evolved as well, designed to face challenges and reach new audiences. MSG was not one of the ingredients that would last long on American shelves, for better or for worse, but umami was.
Whether you’re looking to stir fry, boil, or braise, Fly By Jing has the ingredients and recipes you need to begin achieving great umami flavors. Explore our growing list of our favorite recipes and begin taste-testing your next umami dish at home today.