In the last three years, perhaps the boldest thing Chef David Chang has done with food is let it rot. In his tiny Momofuku research and development lab in New York’s East Village, Chang and his head of R&D Dan Felder have obsessed over the many delicious things that happen when molds and fungi are treated like gourmet ingredients rather than evidence that you need to clean out your fridge.
Without fermentation, we would live in a sad world without beer, cheese, miso, kimchi, and hundreds of other delicious things humans have enjoyed for centuries. But in the carefully labeled containers stacked around the cramped confines of their lab, Chang and Felder have been fermenting new things. They’ve turned mashed pistachios, lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes into miso-like pastes Chang calls “hozon” (Korean for “preserved”). They’ve created variations on Japanese tamari — a by-product of miso production that’s similar to soy sauce — with fermented spelt and rye they call “bonji” (“essence”). They’ve even replicated the Japanese staple katsuobushi (a log of dried, smoked, and fermented bonito that’s shaved into bonito flakes) using fermented pork tenderloin instead of fish.
The flavor Chang and Felder are chasing in creating these new fermented products is umami — the savory “fifth taste” detectable by the human tongue along with salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. When bacteria and fungi break down the glucose in foods that are fermenting, they release waste products. And the waste valued in Momofuku’s lab above all others is glutamic acid, the amino acid that creates the taste of umami on our tongues.
Also on the shelf in Chang’s lab, underneath the jars containing foods in various states of controlled spoilage, is a giant tin of monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG — perhaps the most infamously misunderstood and maligned three letters in the history of food. It just so happens that inside that tin of MSG is the exact molecule Chang and his chefs have worked so hard for the last three years to tease out of pots of fermenting beans and nuts. It’s pure glutamic acid, crystallized with a single sodium ion to stabilize it; five pounds of uncut, un-stepped-on umami, made from fermented corn in a factory in Iowa.
We’ve only known for sure that our tongue has specific taste buds for glutamic acid for 13 years. So for chefs like Chang, the Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal, Umami Burger’s Adam Fleischman, and many others around the world, umami’s flavors have become one of cooking’s most exciting new frontiers. The new flavors they’re creating use advanced methods to expand on what millions around the world (but especially in east Asia) have known for centuries — that foods rich in glutamic acid are delicious, and we want to eat them.
For these chefs, the path to understanding umami inevitably leads them to MSG, which is chemically identical to the glutamic acid they’re creating from scratch. And yet Chang wouldn’t think of using MSG in his restaurants today. He told me he doesn’t even use it at home, despite being a professed lover of MSG-laced Japanese Kewpie mayo. After decades of research debunking its reputation as a health hazard, and uninterrupted FDA approval since 1959, MSG remains a food pariah — part of a story that spans a century of history, race, culture, and science and says more about how we eat today than any other.
Glutamic acid is one of 20 amino acids that are crucial to the human body’s proper functioning. Without it, we would die, but it is referred to as a nonessential amino acid because our bodies can produce all we need on their own, and we don’t depend on consuming it directly with our food. Glutamic acid is found throughout our bodies, where it is crucial to cell metabolism. In the brain, it is an important neurotransmitter, regulating learning and memory. Every second in our heads, quadrillions of microscopic glutamate bombs explode every time a neuron fires, passing electrical signals through our synapses.
According to FDA estimates, we consume 13 grams of glutamic acid in food every day, and it comes to us in one of three ways: Proteins are long chains of amino acids bound together, and most proteins contain some glutamic acid. Some foods, like Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, seaweed, or soy sauce also contain “free” glutamic acid, which is not bound with other aminos in proteins and is what our tongue reacts to when we taste umami. Fermentation can also significantly increase the amount of free glutamic acid found in a food.
The third way we typically consume glutamic acid is from MSG — the FDA estimates that most of us eat a little over a half a gram of it every day. If you eat Doritos, you’ve just eaten MSG. Same with practically any other snack with cheese powder, Kentucky Fried Chicken, many types of cold cuts, canned soups, soy sauce, and hundreds of other processed foods. MSG is made by pairing a single glutamic acid ion with a single sodium ion to form a salt — hence the full name, monosodium glutamate. When we eat MSG, our saliva dissolves the sodium ion from the glutamate ion, releasing free glutamic acid almost immediately and signaling to our brains that we’re eating something tasty and protein-rich.
Today, MSG is manufactured commercially by fermentation that is more or less the same as what’s happening in the Momofuku R&D lab. In factories around the world, a bacterium known as Corynebacterium glutamicum (so named for its prized waste products) is fed plant glucose (corn, beets, wheat). As it eats, it releases glutamic acid. The resulting fermented product is filtered and centrifuged to isolate the glutamic acid and remove by-products and impurities, it’s crystallized, and out comes MSG.
This summer, Chang and his team outgrew the tiny East Village R&D space and moved to a larger facility in Brooklyn to prepare Momofuku’s hozon and bonji for sale to home cooks around the world. Exactly how they’ll be sold he won’t yet reveal, but Chang says they are “a month or two away from getting it to a commercial product. We have it all tested, everything’s ready to go.” In using new source ingredients for the fermentation, Chang and his team are “trying to harness [glutamic acid] in ways that quite frankly we don’t know have ever been done before,” he says.
“Everything changed for us when we made our pork katsuobushi,” Chang says. “It caused us to learn about cell structure, enzymes, proteins, amino acids — stuff that quite frankly I didn’t care at all about. But I realized, Oh my god, how am I ever going to understand this, because this is vital.”
To get from an almost accidentally delicious fermented pork katsuoboshi to a line of umami-enhancing products ready for sale in three years, Chang and his team had a crash course in glutamic acid: They sent samples to microbiologists from UCLA and Harvard who identified the strains of bacteria responsible for the fermentation. They also advised them on how glutamic acid works in the body. “We asked them, ‘So you’re positive that if I ingest MSG and I eat the same amount naturally, the body digests it in the same way?’ Chang recalls. “And they said, ‘100 fucking percent.’”
Like so many scientific discoveries, the origin story of MSG involves a special combination of curiosity and serendipity. The legend goes that one evening in 1907, Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at the University of Tokyo, was feeling especially curious while he enjoyed a dinner of his wife’s dashi and tofu soup. Rather than simply enjoying his dinner like any other night, he stopped to ponder what made dashi not only so delicious on its own, but so complementary to other savory foods. He suspected that the unique flavor of one of its primary ingredients, the seaweed kombu (giant kelp), might hold the secret to dashi’s unique flavor-boosting ability.
Dashi is the mother stock of Japanese cooking. It’s made by boiling seaweed and dried fish together briefly and straining, which creates a light, savory stock. The most common variety is made with kombu and shaved katsuoboshi, the fermented fish (the one Chang replicated with pork). Meat wasn’t eaten widely in Japan until the 19th century, so for a large period of Japan’s culinary history, savory flavors came from fish, vegetables, and soy products. For over 1,000 years, Japanese eaters have known that adding dashi to fish and other ingredients amplified the savory flavors in even small amounts of protein and vegetables. But they didn’t know why.
Back at his lab at the University of Tokyo, Ikeda ran dashi through a series of evaporations and tests to isolate its individual chemicals as solids. Eventually, he came across a brownish crystalline substance that had a mild but intriguing flavor, and the same flavor-boosting powers of dashi. The residue was mostly glutamic acid. Kombu seaweed, it turns out, has one of the highest concentrations of naturally occurring glutamic acid of any food — it’s made of 1.6% free glutamic acid by weight. Connecting the dots to the foods made tastier with its addition, Ikeda became the first scientist to associate glutamic acid with savoriness in food. He called this taste umami — based on the Japanese root “umai,” meaning “delicious,” or simply “good.”
Ikeda was as enterprising as he was curious, so soon after his discovery, he refined and patented a way to produce pure glutamic acid, stabilizing it with a salt ion to create what we now know as monosodium glutamate. He called the company he founded to produce MSG Ajinomoto (“the essence of taste”), thus forever linking umami, the taste, with glutamic acid, the chemical. It remains one of the largest producers of MSG in the world today.
Ajinomoto began selling MSG in 1909 and in the next few years expanded across east Asia. On its own, MSG is salty, mildly bitter, and relatively flavorless compared with other seasonings. But when combined with products and dishes already rich in glutamic acids like the dashi stocks, soy sauces, and miso of Japan, the fermented fish sauces of Thailand, Chinese fermented bean sauces, Korean kimchi, or even Italian tomato sauce, the savory elements in those foods are amplified significantly. So for the cuisines of East Asia already focused around products rich in glutamic acid, MSG was a natural fit, and soon became as commonplace as salt in restaurant kitchens and on dining room tables.
After World War II, banking on new developments like more refrigerators in homes and advances in manufacturing and transport, the processed-food industry exploded. For most of the country, heating up a TV dinner or even finding tidy rows of colorful shelf-stable canned vegetables at a grocery store was exciting and novel. During this boom in food processing, MSG found a strong foothold in American food. In 1947, pure MSG was introduced for sale in America as the “flavor awakener” Ac’cent, which remains available today. When seasoned with MSG, products like soup bouillon cubes or hot dogs were able to taste nearly as savory as their freshly made counterparts for months or even years after manufacturing. By the late 1960s, MSG was found in countless processed products, including baby food. Babies loved MSG just like adults, which is not a surprise. Human breast milk contains 19 milligrams of free glutamic acid per 100 grams — cow’s milk has 1 milligram. We’re programmed to crave umami from the womb.
MSG began in 1968 as an FDA-approved food additive eaten throughout Asia and used widely by food processors in America to make their blandest products taste better. It ended that year at the center of an international health scare with vaguely racist undertones that sent Ajinomoto’s stock price into free fall. MSG’s sudden downfall is a meme in the purest sense — an idea that doesn’t simply spread but evolves, abiding closely to the rules of evolution and natural selection. “I believe that given the right conditions, replicators automatically band together to create systems…that carry them around and work to favour their continued replication,” wrote Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, in which he coined the term “meme.” And in America in 1968, conditions could not have been better for the MSG meme to take root, thrive, and replicate.
At that time, there was not much research proving MSG was safe, because there had yet to be any real reason to spend the money to prove otherwise. There were young people who hated just about everything their parents stood for — their politics, their cheesy music, their conservative haircuts, and their processed food. There was a fading notion of corporations as triumphant post-war engines of patriotic capitalism, and a rising realization that many of them were putting profits well before the safety of their consumers. To many Americans, Asia was still a deeply foreign place where we fought most of our wars. But most importantly, people were only just beginning to understand certain crucial tenets of human biology. The idea of DNA as a tightly woven spiral of nucleotides that holds the entirety of our genetic code was just 15 years old.
It started with a single letter, published in the correspondence section of the April 4, 1968, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine under the perhaps tongue-in-cheek editorial heading “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” It was written by a Chinese-American doctor in Maryland, Robert Ho Man Kwok. “For several years since I have been in this country, I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant,” Kwok wrote. The most prominent symptoms included “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, and general weakness and palpitation.” As an immigrant of Cantonese descent, Kwok was familiar with MSG’s widespread use in Asian cooking. But in his letter, he was very specific about only experiencing these symptoms after eating Chinese food in American restaurants.
“The cause is obscure,” he continues. In discussing the symptoms with colleagues, he at first thought it might be caused by an allergy to something in the soy sauce, but discounted this theory because he used the same type of soy sauce at home. The usage of cooking wine was also mentioned, as the symptom set he experienced “resembles to some extent the effects of alcohol.” But what Kwok appeared to suspect most was the high sodium content of the food. “The Chinese food causes thirst,” he wrote, “which would also be due to the high sodium content. The syndrome may therefore be due merely to the large quantity of salt in the food.” MSG was almost an afterthought: “Others have suggested it may be caused by the monosodium glutamate seasoning used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants.” He closed ruminating on the idea that the presence of MSG might make the sodium-related symptoms “more acute.”
But it was the MSG bit that people focused on. The New York Times quickly followed the NEJM’s lead, publishing a small write-up on the issue a month later (Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ Puzzles Doctors,” May 19, 1968). Also fueling the burgeoning myth was a latent distrust of what happened behind the kitchen door at Chinese restaurants, even as they became increasingly common to American diners in the late 1960s. “To be suspicious of the goings on in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant was not uncommon,” food historian Ian Mosby writes in his paper “‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980.” For many, suspicions of mysterious meats and other “excessive” practices were still present.
The story’s origin point in the largest and most influential medical journal published in the United States also ensured it caught the eye of many doctors and scientists. It also touched a nerve with the public — in an issue a few months after publishing Kwok’s letter, the journal ran those from several more who had felt the same symptoms. And so began a flurry of research in the late 1960s and early 1970s, attempting to isolate the symptoms Kwok described in clinical settings. Ironically, NEJM’s jokey headline stuck, and the broad group of symptoms Kwok described became known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in both the scientific literature and to the general public.
Like most research done in response to a surge in public interest, the methods and results of these initial studies varied widely. Many of the studies did identify an association between MSG and the symptoms Kwok described in his letter, but did so using extremely high doses administered without double-blind, placebo-controlled testing. Symptoms like flushing and headaches could not be objectively measured like blood pressure or heart rate, so the studies depended on self-diagnosis of the test subjects, making them prone to error.
Meanwhile, a second path of research into MSG’s longer-term effects throughout the body emerged. John Olney, a psychiatrist and neuropathologist at Washington University in St. Louis, became especially interested in glutamic acid’s role as a neurotransmitter, and how changing concentrations of it could affect processes in the brain. In his most famous study, Olney injected large doses of MSG into newborn mice, and observed brain lesions and other problems as a result. He attributed this to “excitotoxicity”: when high levels of a neurotransmitter substance (in this case, glutamic acid) cause neurons to fire haphazardly and eventually die. Olney was convinced that high doses of MSG could have similar effects in humans, and became a figurehead of the anti-MSG world.
Just over a year after Dr. Kwok’s letter, in July 1969, Ralph Nader, a rising champion of the burgeoning consumer safety movement, took on the cause of MSG. Testifying before Congress along with Olney and several other scientists involved in early MSG research, Nader was successful in banning MSG from baby food. (It remains banned for infants to this day, although Nader, via a spokesman, says that he is “not up on the issue’s latest developments so he really could not comment further.”)
Yet after that initial wave of research, many studies that followed came to sharply differing conclusions. These later studies had an advantage: Once the story was out, people began to self-diagnose as being sensitive to MSG. In several double-blind studies that administered either dosages of MSG or placebo to people who already claimed to experience “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” no statistically relevant increase in symptoms has been identified with those given real MSG over those given a placebo.
As for MSG’s potential long-term effects on the nervous system, Olney’s continued study of glutamate excitotoxicity helped broaden our understanding of neurological disorders that stem from an imbalance of glutamate in the brain, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. And in 1972, Olney found similar lesions in the brains of rhesus monkeys injected with MSG, suggesting the problem could affect primates as well. But other researchers who have tried to replicate his results with monkeys have failed, and no link between dietary consumption of glutamic acids and glutamate levels in the human brain have been found.
This is thanks to the blood-brain barrier, a membrane of tightly bound cells that acts a protective filter, keeping substances like excess free glutamic acid from disrupting its precise chemical balance. “The brain is basically the North Korea of glutamate: a closed world. It makes all the glutamate it needs, and does not let glutamate in,” Samuel Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, told me in an email. In the case of newborn mice (Olney’s were 2 to 9 days old), the development of their blood-brain barriers would be roughly equivalent to a human infant’s in the second trimester, Wang says. And the high dosage of MSG administered (0.5 to 4 milligrams per gram of body weight) would be equivalent to a 165-pound human eating nearly 300 grams of MSG — about 600 times more than we typically consume daily.
If anything resembling a consensus emerges from the tangle of research that follows Dr. Kwok’s letter, it’s that perhaps a very small number of humans may experience a mild reaction to eating large amounts of MSG, often on an empty stomach — a statement that could describe nearly everything else we eat. Yet no evidence suggesting anything resembling a proven allergy like gluten sensitivity, a diagnosed autoimmune disorder, has been found. The FDA, while acknowledging “short-term, transient and generally mild symptoms” in “some sensitive individuals who consume 3 grams or more of MSG without food,” has never removed MSG from its “generally recognized as safe” list. So why, after almost five decades of science that is vaguely inconclusive or inaccurate at worst, or definitively affirmative of MSG’s safety at best, does the ingredient remain divisive?
On the 19th floor of an office building in Fort Lee, New Jersey, amid the maze of turnpikes and highways that greet New Yorkers upon exiting the George Washington Bridge, the full force of Ajinomoto’s defense against decades of cultural bias is on display. I am met by Miro Smriga, who greets me with an endearingly halting East-meets-West accent — a product of his birthplace (Czechoslovakia) and where he’s worked as a science and regulatory manager for Ajinomoto for much of his adult life (Tokyo) before moving to New Jersey two years ago. Smriga is the opposite of the lock-step PR robot I was expecting, but like all good public relations executions, I get the feeling that even this seemingly minor detail had been carefully considered.
As we sit down in a conference room, I am given a stack of published research papers by scientists around the world claiming MSG is safe to eat. Most of these papers were funded at least in part by Ajinomoto itself. I am handed a promotional pamphlet disguised as a book on dashi, umami, and Japanese food culture, printed on paper that is clearly very expensive. I am offered a glutamate-rich yet ethnically neutral chicken, tomato, mozzarella, and avocado sandwich.
As he begins his PowerPoint, Smriga speaks casually, and moves in and out of presentation mode with ease to address my questions, but his message remains focused: Despite MSG’s bad name, science gives us no reason to believe that it is harmful. The first slide contains a chart of the five known tastes discernible by the human tongue: Bitter is caused by acetic acid, salty is sodium chloride, and sweet is sucrose, not sugar. And there is monosodium glutamate, responsible for umami. This is a reminder — most certainly a calculated one — that almost everything we eat has a scientific name just as artificial-sounding as “monosodium glutamate.”
Smriga has clearly given this spiel before (including once to chef Heston Blumenthal, he says). It was born from a moment when his company was caught squarely on the defensive in response to Dr. Kwok’s letter.
“Before the accident, Ajinomoto was a science company, but all the science was based in production,” Smriga tells me, his word choice (“accident”) revealing how unexpected the MSG backlash had been. “But now we are a company based on broad science. We have nutritionists, pharmacologists, doctors of all kinds — more scientists by percentage than any other company.”
But by the time Ajinomoto joined other MSG producers and food companies like Nestlé and Unilever to form the Glutamate Association in 1977 — a trade group to fund scientific research and lobby regulators in Washington, D.C. — the damage had already been done. “The company made a mistake because they didn’t do anything,” Smriga says, referring to the years immediately following Dr. Kwok’s letter. “The mistake was huge, and we paid for it.”
And they’re still paying. Search for “MSG and autism,” “MSG and obesity,” or “MSG and seizures,” and the top results belong to msgtruth.org, a website devoted to perceived health risks presented by both MSG and aspartame. It is the work of Carol Hoernlein, a New Jersey woman who spent four years working for food companies before becoming disillusioned with their practices and quitting in 1992. Hoernlein has battled high blood pressure for most of her life due to a series of serious kidney problems, and would often suffer blood pressure spikes, headaches, and stomach problems after eating. When she removed MSG from her diet after a relative told her she believed Ac’cent had caused her uncle’s heart attack, she says her symptoms reduced dramatically. Her site links MSG consumption with not just the standard “Chinese restaurant syndrome” symptoms but also depression, seizures, diabetes, autism, multiple sclerosis, and seemingly every other conceivable health problem in an elaborate flowchart.
“I’m a scientist — I can’t just assume something, I have to check it out,” she tells me, describing her motivation to create the site in 2002. Hoernlein clearly has an understanding of food science, but she also has a tendency to oversimplify the conclusions of research, and to connect dots that aren’t there. Both on her site and in our conversation, Hoernlein frequently cites the studies by Olney and others that have associated glutamic acid with obesity, brain and retina lesions in infant mice, using them as evidence that MSG could do the same thing to humans. Yet she does not mention that no such symptoms have been reproduced consistently in primates, let alone humans, and that the lesions were induced from extremely high doses of injected MSG.
When I ask her about this disparity, she deflects my question toward her desire for more thorough, independent research, which she sees as her site’s main purpose, despite its alarmist tone. She is certainly correct in pointing out that research funded by a company with a massive financial stake in its outcome presents a problem, and can make hacking through the literature for a clear signal difficult.
But Wang, the Princeton neuroscientist, dismisses conflict of interest as a strong enough force to significantly steer the research process into MSG worldwide. A trade group like the Glutamate Association, even though it might be footing the bill for individual papers, is “not in a position to send tentacles into the entire scientific establishment and bend all our minds to its will,” he says. “Whoever could demonstrate an actual biological effect of MSG on behavior, mood, or the brain would make his or her mark on science forever. And every scientist wants to make a lasting mark.”
Hoernlein tells me most of the people who email her with stories of their health improving after avoiding MSG have a history of other medical problems, as she does. When I ask her which foods she has to avoid to control her exposure to MSG and her blood pressure, her list includes canned soups, Caesar dressing, sausage, “anything Parmesan encrusted,” soy sauce, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Science is never going to prove definitively to someone suffering from high blood pressure that eliminating these foods won’t make them feel better. But it’s also not going to conclude that MSG is to blame more than any of the other ingredients with proven negative health effects those foods have in common. Nothing we eat is risk-free, and so the language of food safety regulations speaks of “acceptable levels of risk” or “the reasonable certainty” that foods won’t harm us, not of absolutes. Science is the same; to assume that published research can account for every individual’s differences, every perceived “canary in the coal mine” as Hoernlein likes to say, is to confuse scientific research with personal health care. Another instance of the MSG meme’s power — its cultural currency is not proportional to its truth.
The simple fact that has perpetuated the MSG stigma in our culture more than any other is that food high in MSG is almost always bad for you. Almost all of Ajinomoto’s MSG is bought by the processed foods industry — upward of 21 million pounds per year, according to one estimate. Only in poorer countries that lack industrialized food infrastructure is the sale of “over-the-counter” MSG for use in home kitchens significant, Smriga says. Simply put, the foods that provide an average American his or her FDA-estimated half-gram of MSG daily are not healthy. But not because of MSG.
For chefs in search of quality ingredients, it’s perfectly rational, if not an imperative, to question the usage of not only MSG, but all chemicals found in the foods we eat. And as chefs at the highest levels of cuisine gravitate toward not just umami, but a more scientific approach to cooking, glutamic acid and MSG are being seen in an entirely new context. It’s not a coincidence that the most outspoken chefs questioning the stigma of MSG today are of this mentality. David Chang, Nathan Myhrvold, Heston Blumenthal, as well as Harold McGee, whose 1984 book On Food and Cooking has become the bible of gourmet food scientists, have all publicly called for MSG’s reevaluation. None of them have found any convincing science that indicates MSG is unsafe for use.
No one today is championing a scientific approach to food more than the lab of Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive whose six-volume opus Modernist Cuisine is one of the defining texts for this new approach. (The book calls for MSG in several recipes, including its instructions for reverse-engineering Kentucky Fried Chicken). Scott Heimendinger, the Modernist Cuisine lab’s director of applied research, has noticed this shift in perception of food as an inherently chemical process.
“There’s certainly a growing movement of people who are cool with white powders and who have their collection at home, just like I do,” says Heimendinger. “I think there is a class of people who understand that synthetic versus natural is a very arbitrary boundary that falls apart under scrutiny.”
When Chang asks his chefs how things like miso production or fermentation work, “‘Like magic’ or ‘I don’t know’ isn’t good enough any more,” Chang says. “I think we are at our best when we’re questioning and challenging everything. Which is why I’m sore when I hear comments like, ‘I hate molecular gastronomy.’ That means you hate learning. You only think that there’s one way of doing something. It’s that narrow-mindedness that drives me fucking insane.”
Because here’s the thing — nothing is stopping chefs from creating the same “natural” MSG that Ikeda “discovered” in 1908. Chang says he and his Momofuku chefs make kombu salt by more or less the same method “all the time,” as do chefs at several other restaurants. The chemical, glutamic acid, is the same, whether it is created by fermentation in a factory or in the R&D lab of Momofuku. The question for Chang comes down to why the stuff called MSG is demonized, and the “natural” evaporated kombu salt is considered gourmet.
“The funny thing is that I can make some stupid fucking hipster dish with Dorito powder and serve it on roasted corn with fucking lime juice and people would eat the shit out of it,” Chang says. “If I say, ‘That’s got MSG in it,’ no one’s going to say, ‘Well, that sounds delicious.’ But if I put Doritos on it…for fuck’s sake, Taco Bell’s marketing it directly.”
So how long until we see MSG used as a finishing salt in high-end restaurants? “I think that it’s a matter of time,” Chang says. “I know there are a couple of places out there that already do that. But they’re in the closet. Everyone’s so afraid of being outed that nobody wants to talk about it.”
So for many chefs, the most direct way to umami is to sell your own glutamate-rich products — like Chang is about to do with his hozons and bonjis from the R&D lab, and like L.A.’s Umami Burger chef Adam Fleischman already does on his website, which offers products called “umami spray” and “umami dust.”
Or you can go straight to the source yourself.
I’m at home. It’s late. I’ve decided to run a study of my own — I’ve decided to make a glutamate bomb posing as a pasta meat sauce. It’ll have tomatoes (246 milligrams of free glutamic acid per 100 grams), mushrooms (71 milligrams), Parmesan cheese (1,680 milligrams!), ground beef (10 milligrams, with more bound in its proteins). And from the red plastic Ajinomoto bag I spoon in 1.5 grams of pure MSG, three times the average daily American dose. I put a fingertip of crystals to my tongue before dropping them into the pan. From birth, Americans know salt is salty and sugar is sweet, but for this peculiar taste of umami on its own, we have no context.
I add the first half-gram of MSG to the ground beef as it begins to brown in olive oil, and it feels almost illicit. I feel a tingle of excitement, and take a deep whiff of the sizzling meat. Is it just that this beef is good (it is; I got it from a fancy shop at Chelsea Market, although it’s been in my freezer for almost a month), or does this smell better than usual? I remind myself that MSG has no odor, and I continue. Out of the pan comes the beef, and in goes shallot and garlic, sautéing in the MSG-doused beef fat. Is it possible that MSG is making one of the best smells in the world (onions and garlic sautéing in fat) even better?
Next comes a deglaze of red wine, then the tomatoes, mushrooms, some dried thyme and fresh rosemary, and a little salt and pepper. I finish it with a healthy shaving of aged Parmesan, pour some red wine, and sit down to eat. It is delicious.
But wait, is that a flush I feel on the back of my neck as I begin to shovel it in? I am hyper aware of my own body. My humid apartment on this warm summer night has been further heated by all this cooking and simmering, and yet this rational explanation doesn’t immediately trump my suspicion that the MSG may be doing things to me. Is this “homemade Italian dinner syndrome,” right here in my own living room?
I sit in the breeze of a fan and cool down. The feeling subsides. I take another bite. Nothing happens.