I’ve always been on the fence regarding the MSG question. I know lots of people who claim to have bad reactions to it. E, in particular, has a nasty reaction to certain asian foods that we attribute to MSG (strangely, they’re usually Taiwanese, which makes me wonder if it’s some other ingredient peculiar to Taiwanese cooking). On the other hand, plenty of evidence (including the millions of Asian people who use it every day) seems to indicate that it’s not as bad for you as its reputation would indicate.

Here’s a fantastic article from the Guardian (from 2005) all about the substance and whether or not it’s yuck:

When you next grate parmesan cheese onto some dull spaghetti, what you will have done in essence is add a shed-load of glutamate to stimulate your tongue’s umami receptors, thus sending a message to the brain which signals (as one neuro-researcher puts it) ‘Joy and happiness!’ Supper is rescued – and your system has added some protein and fats to a meal that was all carbohydrate.

Ripe cheese is full of glutamate, as are tomatoes. Parmesan, with 1200mg per 100 grams, is the substance with more free glutamate in it than any other natural foodstuff on the planet. Almost all foods have some naturally occurring glutamate in them but the ones with most are obvious: ripe tomatoes, cured meats, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, Bovril and of course Worcester sauce, nam pla (with 950mg per 100g) and the other fermented fish sauces of Asia….

It’s not surprising that the MSG-makers are so busy on their product’s image, because MSG-phobia still shows no signs of subsiding. This despite the fact that every concerned public body that ever investigated it has given it a clean bill of health, including the EU, the United Nations food agencies (which in 1988 put MSG on the list of ‘safest food additives’), and the British, Japanese and Australian governments.

In fact, every government across the world that has a food licensing and testing system gives MSG – ‘at normal levels in the diet’ – the thumbs-up. The US Food and Drug Administration has three times, in 1958, 1991 and 1998, reviewed the evidence, tested the chemical and pronounced it ‘genuinely recognised as safe.

Of particular interest is the chart at the end, which I’ll duplicate here in full because it’s worth checking out. It’s a list of ingredients found in many processed foods that are actually MSG in disguise:

So you think you don’t eat MSG? Think again…

Some of the names MSG goes under

monopotassium glutamate
glutamic acid
autolyzed yeast extract
calcium caseinate
sodium caseinate
E621 (E620-625 are all glutamates)
Ajinomoto, Ac’cent
Gourmet Powder

The following may also contain MSG natural flavours or seasonings
natural beef or chicken flavouring
hydrolyzed milk or plant protein
textured protein
soy sauce

Free glutamate content of foods (mg per 100g) roquefort cheese 1280
parmesan cheese 1200
soy sauce 1090
walnuts 658
fresh tomato juice 260
grape juice 258
peas 200
mushrooms 180
broccoli 176
tomatoes 140
mushrooms 140
oysters 137
corn 130
potatoes 102
chicken 44
mackerel 36
beef 33
eggs 23
human milk 22

Me, I’m on the fence. I can’t imagine ever buying any for use in the kitchen, but since I don’t tend to get the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the question is more academic.

That said, I do keep a package of kombu on hand in the kitchen. I add a piece to rice while it’s cooking, or to any ‘one-pot’ stew or simmer, and the difference is notable. What’s really easy and fun is to make a kombu dashi (broth), which can be used as a base for miso soup, added to savory dishes that require liquid or deglazing, mixed in with rice, or used instead of water to steam vegetables.

Yum Kombu Awesome

(Great Kombu Photo by “Kok Robin,” found at http://www.aziatische-ingredienten.nl/kombu/
Check out the rest of the site, too, which has some excellent information on Asian Ingredients!)

This version is quick and dirty, and largely improvised. It’s a little different than the usual kombu/fish-flake I’ve provided veggie and non- variations. Enjoy!

Kombu Dashi

2 large pieces of kombu (let’s say 3-4 inches)
4 cups water
1/3 cup Mirin (a Japanese cooking wine)
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 Tbsp bonito flakes OR 1/4 cup chopped dried and reconstituted shiitake mushrooms for a veggie version (or both, if you’re inclined to a stronger flavor)

Soak the kombu in the water for 30 minutes. Add the Mirin and the vinegar, and turn the heat up to medium high, but keep an eye on it. Right before the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and remove the kombu. Add the bonito flakes/shiitakes and simmer for an additional 10 minutes (or to taste). Strain the liquid, and you’re golden.

Eat some Glutamate today!