"MSG Tattoos and Martinis: Uplifting a Maligned Seasoning's Reputation"

By Patricia Anderson February 15, 2024

An innovative New York chef aims to demystify and celebrate the maligned seasoning MSG, emphasizing its culinary benefits and help ejecting ingrained false notions from diners' minds.

There's no hiding Calvin Eng’s fervour for monosodium glutamate (MSG). As the proprietor of Bonnie’s, the trending Cantonese-American restaurant located in New York, Eng rather unabashedly and quite literally wears his affection for MSG on his sleeve - inscribed through a tattoo bearing the initials "MSG." Furthermore, one look at Eng’s menu highlights a quirky concoction named the "MSG Martini."

Eng is quick to back his love for this unique seasoning with facts. "Whether it’s Western or Cantonese cuisine, the addition of MSG ups the flavor quotient," stated Eng. He also shared how his kitchen doesn't limit the use of this seasoning to just savory dishes, but also imparts MSG into drinks and desserts to enhance their taste. The chef aims to change people's understanding of MSG and he often humorously refers to it as a part of the 'Chinese Holy Trinity of seasonings’, categorizing it alongside salt and sugar.

The open endorsement of MSG, which was once infamous to the point of allegedly being a pick for restaurants displaying vacant seats, has done little to deter the success of Bonnie's. Since its grand opening in Brooklyn, New York, in late 2021, the restaurant has now become a hot spot in the city's culinary scene, grabbing accolades of 'Best New Restaurant' from several high-profile media outlets. Eng's innovative use of MSG has helped him snag the title of the ‘Best New Chefs of 2022' by Food and Wine Magazine. He even made it to Forbes' '30 under 30' list of 2023.

However, Eng is not alone in advocating for the merits of this globally used century-old seasoning. He is a part of a growing team of esteemed chefs, such as David Chang of Momofuku and celebrity chef Eddie Huang, who stand united in the mission of eradicating the stigma attached to MSG.

Reflecting on the phase of its undeserved bad reputation, Eng recollected how during his younger days, the use of MSG in his household was practically forbidden. His mother used to cook with chicken powder, and it was only when he grew old enough to ask and get informed that he found the two to be alike.

MSG seems to have faced misconceptions throughout its history. Its journey began in 1907 in Japan, when chemist Kikunae Ikeda managed to extract MSG from a sizeable amount of kombu seaweed, aiming to add a savory touch to foods such as dashi broth. After successfully extracting MSG, he labeled the unique taste derived from it as "umami." He then managed to transform the glutamate extracted into a crystallized form, making its use as simple as salt and sugar.

By the following year, business enthusiast Saburosuke Suzuki joined Ikeda and together they procured a joint share on the patent for MSG. The duo then established the company Ajinomoto to manufacture and market their unique seasoning. Their invention soon powered through the ranks and developed into a household favorite, especially amongst Japan’s middle-class women.

Over the decades, MSG's positive reputation expanded across the globe. In the aftermath of World War II, the US military held the inaugural MSG symposium. The venue provided a platform for discussions on how MSG, typically known for making ration packs tastier, could potentially elevate the overall morale of the soldiers in the field.

However, this booming seasoning stumbled upon a roadblock in 1968, when bad press dented its reputation. A letter penned by a US physician to a medical journal titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” stealthily claimed the limelight. It documented several uncomfortable symptoms supposedly linked to MSG, including palpitations, neck numbness, and general weakness. Although several other potential suspects such as cooking wine and high levels of sodium were implicated, it was MSG that bore the brunt of the blame. This incident led to a drastic shift in the perception people held for MSG, resulting in establishments publicly denouncing its use.

Tia Rains, a Chicago-based nutrition specialist and vice president of customer engagement and strategic development at Ajinomoto, clarifies the confusion surrounding MSG. "It's crucial to understand that MSG is derived from plants. We brew it using a process of fermentation that closely resembles how beer or yogurt is made," she remarked. Initially, sugar-rich plants such as sugarcanes or corn undergo a fermentation process that produces the amino acid glutamate. Sodium is then added to solidify it into the cooking MSG we find in supermarkets.

Scientists have focused their research on understanding how MSG influences the taste of food. One such researcher is Rains, who enthused, "When you see it under a microscope, our tongue receptor for umami mirrors a Venus Flytrap." The glutamate snugly fits such receptors creating the unique flavor experience associated with umami.

In layman's terms, if a food contains either of the two nucleotides, inosinate or guanylate, they allow the glutamate to stick around and prolong the umami sensation. Rains states that blending glutamate with these nucleotides will provide a powerful umami burst. This harmonic combination has been subtly at play in your dishes already if you have been cooking with ingredients such as carrots and onions, which are rich in glutamate, or meat and bonito fish (inosinate). Certain food items like tomatoes and cheese are also naturally rich in glutamate.

Debunking another myth, Rains clarified that MSG does not cause allergic reactions, stating "if someone complains of trouble breathing or experiences chest tightness after eating Chinese food, then the cause certainly isn't MSG."

Several decades of extensive scientific research and countless trials have not been able to confirm the dreaded 'MSG sensitivity.' Renowned regulatory bodies worldwide, like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have endorsed MSG's safety, filing it under the category “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The FDA has also discounted the idea of MSG sensitivity, stating that during trials where participants identifying as ‘MSG-sensitive’ were asked to differentiate between MSG and a placebo, there were no consistent results linking MSG to adverse reactions.

Hong Kong's Center for Food Safety reported that incorporating MSG in meals could potentially reduce the intake of sodium, which is a proven contributor to health conditions like high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. Adding to this, an assessment conducted by a scientific officer from the Hong Kong government claimed that the use of MSG, when combined with a lesser amount of salt during a meal's preparation, could curtail the total sodium level by 20 to 40%.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and governmental assurance about the safety of MSG, a faction of society still holds onto misguided negative views about it. Bearing the brunt of these misconceptions, the marketing team at Ajinomoto continues to fight uphill to counter these unverified beliefs.

"We've been unable to lower the sodium levels in our food supply over the years, in spite of having a readily available and effective tool. This is mainly driven by outdated, xenophobic, and possibly racist attitudes about a food ingredient that's been widely consumed for over a century," highlighted Rains. Determined to reverse the situation and not bow down to such challenge, in 2020, Rains and her team managed to persuade Merriam-Webster dictionary to revise the definition of 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.'

Ajinomoto has also hosted knowledge-sharing sessions aimed at enlightening the public about MSG and umami. Their oldest manufacturing unit, in Kawasaki, houses a visitor center that keeps Ikeda's first MSG crystals charmingly displayed for all to see. The center offers a closer look at MSG's rich past and a visual display describing the production process. This tour is open to interested visitors and is free of charge.

Back at Bonnie's, Eng has been brave enough to include MSG on his menu and discuss it openly, roles that are slowly altering the outdated narratives. Eng shared, "Our clientele is primarily a younger crowd that comprehends and appreciates the value of MSG." He stands by his view and is proud to incorporate this seasoning uniquely to help eradicate the negativity associated with it.

Sweeping aside health-related misconceptions, a few consider the use of MSG as a shortcut or a cheat code to enhance flavors. Eng firmly contests this perspective, stating that his kitchen consistently invests time in its traditional methods. "We dedicate several hours to making our stocks and broths the authentic way using bones. MSG is only added to season our food. It doesn't exempt us from the traditional cooking requirements," clarified Eng.

The chef's eatery, Bonnie's, offers a wide range of classic Cantonese dishes with a twist. One of the most requested items on their menu is a dish inspired by the fusion of McDonald's McRib sandwich and a traditional Cantonese dish. It was steamed black bean ribs, a favorite of Eng's mother Bonnie. Eng steams the ribs until they turn tender and can effortlessly be de-boned. Once separated, the rib meat is marinated using a homemade char siu sauce which is a special blend of hoisin sauce, maltose, fermented red soy curd, MSG, among other ingredients. The meat is then prepared and put inside a soft Cantonese 'zyu zai' bun - a bun type his mother frequently visits a bakery in Chinatown to purchase. Just like other dishes on his menu, this one too has been a crowd-pleaser.

Eng commented, "Our vision was always to present people with a fun, approachable take on Cantonese food that features a blend of tradition and innovation." As the US gradually warms up to the idea of MSG, changing perceptions globally remains a challenge. Rains voiced her optimism that improvements in the US can influence attitudes in other countries where MSG is still viewed skeptically. She concluded, "The negativity that surrounds MSG first took root in the United States. If we can manage to change attitudes here and spread the facts about MSG, it's not unreasonable to anticipate a ripple effect across other nations in the future."