Friday, October 21, 2011


The Ajinomoto building in Bangkok

If you are (i) trendy (ii) knowledgeable (iii) health conscious (iv) having a extremely discerning palate or (v) a yummy mummy [which means you are (i) to (iv) anyway] you must be sure to tell the waiter / order taker at all Chinese restaurants that you do not want any Ajinomoto added to your food. You could explain the request by saying that you are allergic to it. The waiter will probably respond that they do not use Ajinomoto in their food. Phew! Thank God. Naturally a trendy person like you will only go to a trendy restaurant that does not use Ajinomoto. Then, when the waiter has gone you must narrate to your dining companions how you fell very sick when you at XYZ Chinese Restaurant and realised that it’s all that horrible poisonous Ajinomoto that they add to the food.

Ajinomoto is synonymous with a white powder that is added to Chinese food to enhance its flavour. Strictly speaking Ajinomoto is the Japanese company that began manufacturing and selling Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG) which is what the white powder is.

The truth or reality, I am not sure which is the correct word, of this oft played out scene is quite something else.

Before I go any further, I must express my everlasting thanks to Mr. Jeffrey Steingarten whose article opened my eyes to this a few years ago.

First, a bit of background. It was believed that the human tongue could discern 4 basic flavours – sweet, salty, bitter and sour. The Japanese for thousands of years used a seaweed called Konbu to make a flavourful soup. In 1907 Dr Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist, established that Konbu contained large quantities of natural Mono Sodium Glutamate. He found that Mono Sodium Glutamate provided a unique savoury taste sensation different from the standard 4 and named this sensation `umami’, roughly translated as ‘delicious’. He then set about getting a patent and starting to manufacture Mono Sodium Glutamate. That was the start of the company Ajinomoto which still exists and thrives. MSG is now widely used in the food industry as well as, of course, in Chinese restaurants.

Sometime in the late 1960s MSG was blamed as causing “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” in which sensations of burning, pressure and headaches strike people eating Chinese food. This Syndrome unfortunately continues today.

Glutamate occurs naturally in many foods. It’s not a poison. In fact, it is the presence of Glutamate that makes some absolutely irresistible food combinations. Have you ever wondered why French fries and many other foods taste so much better with Tomato ketchup? Why has Tomato become one of the most popular vegetables [fruit technically] in the world? Why does adding of Parmesan cheese enhance the flavour of food? Both tomatoes as well as Parmesan cheese have huge quantities of natural glutamate in them. Soy Sauce, the Thai/Vietnamese fish sauces and Worcestershire Sauce all contain huge amounts of glutamate. Human milk too contains far more than cow’s milk. Glutamate, natural or artificial all tends to add loads of flavour to foods.

While it’s easy to blame Chinese restaurants and ask waiters to instruct the kitchen not to add MSG, our trendy lot does not know that MSG is everywhere but strangely they don’t complain about MSG in processed foods.

Look at the ingredients on most packaged soups and powdered food and you will find pretty high up on the list MSG or `hydrolyzed protein’ or `autolyzed yeast extract’ which are all the same thing. No one complains after eating a packaged soup. Come to think of it, a packaged Tomato soup should render you `Hors De Combat’ if you are trendy with the natural glutamate as well as all the added stuff. A Bloody Mary with the Tomato Juice and Worcestershire Sauce is pretty frightening. Don’t blame the Vodka. Eating a bowl of Tomato Soup followed by French fries and tomato ketchup would contain a fair amount of Glutamate.

Let’s assume that MSG is this vile substance that gives us headaches; have you ever thought of asking waiters in Chinese restaurants if they have headaches especially, if they are nasty to you? Presumably the 2 billion odd Chinese in China all have headaches; after all they eat Chinese food 3 times a day. Do the Japanese also have headaches I wonder? If they all have headaches I guess that it makes sense to set up a plant making Aspirin in China and Japan you have a captive market and a market that can never rid itself of the problem till they change their diet. If the Chinese all had headaches their population would never been what it is. The women would have a ready excuse!!! Get it??

Lastly, it is true that many Chinese restaurants do not use MSG anymore. They use Chicken Stock Powder. The beauty of this is that Chicken Stock Powder contains huge amounts of MSG but, you are not using pure MSG, so everybody is happy. The world is beautiful again and no one has headaches.

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