Chef Mike documents the return to favor of monosodium glutamate
In middle school, I was taught that sweet, salty, bitter and sour were the four cornerstones of taste. I was given a mimeographed diagram that used those familiar purple, blurry lines to map the tongue into four regions; bitter in the back, salty and sour across the center, and sweet right up on the tip of the tongue. Imagine my shock and surprise when I found out my knowledge of taste and flavor was built on a foundation of lies. Lies! LIES, I TELL YOU! Not only do our taste buds contain receptors for all four of the tastes mentioned above, but there is a fifth taste. A FIFTH TASTE!
In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda sensed that there was something beyond the four canonized tastes in his wife’s dashi. (Dashi is a stock made from seaweed called kombu that is widely used in Japanese cooking.) Ikeda set to work and found that glutamic acid was the source of that indefinable, savory flavor he tasted in his wife’s soup. Although he had identified the component as glutamic acid, he decided to give it the Japanese name “umami,” meaning “delicious” or “yummy.”
While the taste receptors for sweet, salty, bitter and sour had been identified long ago, it wasn’t until 2000 that the receptors designed to detect umami were confirmed. This solidified umami’s classification as the fifth basic taste and cleared the way for the word’s rise to foodie buzzword stardom.
If the flavor behind umami, and particularly glutamic acid, seems familiar, it should. It’s been a part of the human eating experience for centuries.
Glutamates are why the ancient Romans and ancient Chinese loved the fermented fish sauces they put in just about every dish they ate. Glutamates are key to the soul-warming, umami-filled comfort of gravies, stocks, meat juices and caramelized proteins. Escoffier, the legendary 19th-century French chef, felt sure that a savory fifth taste was the secret of his success and it’s what turns simple corn chips into the culinary crack we know as Doritos.
Once Kikunae Ikeda zeroed in on glutamate as the source of umami, he put his chemistry skills to work, learned how to crystallize glutamate from ingredients such as sugar beets, sugar cane or tapioca and founded a company called Ajinomoto that began producing monosodium glutamate, better known as the notorious MSG. There are no mysterious soylent-esque ingredients in MSG; it wasn’t invented by Monsanto to control the teeming masses, and most importantly, it is safe to consume.
Yes, there are scores of alarmist websites that will disagree with that last statement, and yes, I know you have a cousin who swears her heart races and head spins every time she eats MSG and yes, I know there are a (very) small number of people with actual, diagnosed glutamate sensitivity. However, the science is clear. The average person is no more likely to have a reaction to MSG than they are to eating tomatoes or parmesan cheese.
Crystalized MSG was widely used in Asia beginning in the early 1900s before coming to the US in the ’50s. The ill-informed term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” began cropping up in the US during the ’60s to describe the numbness, weakness and palpitations some people claimed were the result of eating MSG. These anecdotal stories went viral, causing consumers to avoid MSG, while manufacturers and restaurant owners began slapping “No MSG Added” labels on everything, even if the product contained other glutamate flavor enhancers.
Now, MSG is reemerging with the respect it deserves. The renewed interest in the science of umami and a slew of research in support of MSG have prompted some chefs to embrace monosodium glutamate for what it is—magic umami dust. Trendsetting chefs like David Chang of Momofuku and Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger built their culinary careers on the basis of umami and Grant Achatz, often considered one of the world’s top chefs, travels with a panda-shaped shaker of MSG for personal use.
I count myself as a MSG convert. It’s become a staple in my kitchen, much like salt, pepper and bacon grease, amplifying and accentuating the best flavors in meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, soups, and sauces. Although tastes will vary from person to person as with any seasoning or spice, about one-quarter teaspoon of MSG to one pound of meat or four-to-six servings of vegetables or soup will give you a good place to start.
MSG doesn’t deserve the bad rap it’s gotten over the years. In fact, it can be a valuable tool in the toolbox of any serious cook. After all, who doesn’t love a little magic umami dust every now and then?
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants, and singlehandedly increased Chattanooga’s meat consumption statistics for three consecutive years. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits