x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Our love-hate relationship with MSG

Chinese takeaway could well be both the death knell and the saving grace of the restaurant industry.

Welcome to the age of Byzantine needs. Next week, Chinese new year and Valentine's Day will fall on the same day. It's the Year of the Tiger, and some of the hallmarks of the Chinese Zodiac's fiercest wildcat are squarely aligned with those of the quintessentially fine Valentine: sensitive, romantic, tender-hearted. These days, it's almost as difficult to intuit the right truffle filling for someone special - assuming they eat chocolate - as it is to find good authentic Chinese food outside of an urban Chinatown.

Chinese takeaway could well be both the death knell and the saving grace of the restaurant industry; sometimes the most ostensibly unromantic meals result in the most intimate evenings. Valentine's Day is amateur night for most restaurants, and besides, when you stay home, you have the dual luxury of controlling the lighting and being allowed to occupy the table for as long as you want. And it bears mentioning that most casual Chinese restaurants, including exceptional ones, tend to run close to the bone in the ambience department.

Ubiquitous, watered-down interpretations of Chinese food tend to be cooked very quickly with lots of salt, grease and cheap ingredients. Chinese restaurant food also has a reputation for containing high levels of monosodium glutamate (MSG) to enhance certain flavours; it's MSG that's credited with the addictive intensity of American-style Chinese food, especially in dishes that lack the sticky-sweet sugar rush of, say, a bite of franchise orange chicken, and other "Chinese" dishes sweet enough to bring on a migraine but firmly planted in the hearts and minds of so many fans.

Taking its name from Japanese for "meaty" or "savoury", umami is the delicious, robust taste of flavour-boosting compounds called glutamates, which are the ion and salts of glutamic acid, and it is also what makes things such as Marmite and Parmigiano Reggiano delicious. MSG-free menus have grown increasingly popular; so, what exactly is it that's giving it a bad rap? MSG is the salt version of glutamic acid, a natural component of many fermented foods, such as cheeses, and it can pop up on ingredient lists disguised as any of the following: hydrolysed vegetable proteins, autolysed yeast, hydrolysed yeast, soy extracts, yeast extracts and protein isolate.

The seeds of savoury MSG's bad reputation were sowed in the late 1960s, when a man named Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, claiming: "I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant... The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours... The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations..." Thus, "Chinese restaurant syndrome", otherwise known as "Chinese food syndrome" or "monosodium glutamate symptom complex", was born.

Although it's associated primarily with Chinese restaurants, MSG is everywhere. The Ajinomoto company manufactures MSG in Japan; "Aji no moto" means "essence of taste". It is used by most fast-food chains and in a huge percentage of packaged, processed foods, snack foods, condiments, stock or bouillon cubes and seasoning mixtures. In the end, it seems that people either hate it or merely tolerate it, though studies have demonstrated that the stuff is not as bad as it's often painted. In On Food and Cooking, the food scientist Harold McGee writes that toxicologists have concluded that MSG is harmless to most of us. In fact, while many people believe that MSG is the cause of the host of symptoms, an association has never been made connecting them.

Prawn crackers; Maggi seasoning; soy sauce on white rice. I used to joke that instead of being born with a sweet tooth, I got a "sodium tooth". Nothing spells love to a salt addict more than good Chinese food, where we can work up a sodium buzz to our heart's content. In the Emirates, when I want a dose of umami, I go for truffles - and I'm not talking about chocolate, either, Valentine's Day or not. What I eat are desert truffles, known as fugaa, faqaa, fig-aa or zubadee. They aren't true truffles, as reflected by their relatively modest pricing (look for them in markets after it rains), but these subterranean jewels are wonderful nonetheless, with a funky, mushroom-like aroma and all the creaminess of a new potato.