An alternative take on MSG

There's more MSG in food than we think – and it makes it all the tastier.

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Last week, a fruitful visit to the "Italy" aisle of an international foods market landed me a plethora of jarred fish. So, this week has seen a revival of anchovy toast, the world's most lavish, defiant and wryly inexpensive meal. It's gentleman's relish minus the cummerbund.

To make it, find some good anchovies, preferably from Spain or Italy and preserved in olive oil (or in salt, in which case they’ll need a quick rinse in milk or water before use). Pound them to a coarse paste using a mortar and pestle, throw in some red chilli flakes or a little fresh garlic, swirl in some great olive oil and smear this unlovely ambrosia on to toasted bread. For most people, a little goes a long way. For most of you, that is.

I go through phases where I consume a fair amount of salt. The rest of the time – as in, routinely and relentlessly – I eat it in obscene quantities. This doesn’t mean I can’t be trusted to prepare food for others. I know what properly salted food tastes like; I just prefer extra.

Don’t want anchovy toast? It’s not for everyone. There’s an alternative in miso toast, my second favourite snack. If you’ve ever tasted miso straight, then you might sense a pattern here. If you were to spread a very thin layer of sweet, mellow, white miso on to generously buttered toast, I’m confident that you would be cursing me for your new addiction in no time.

The miso I use is organic, but a lot of commercial miso contains monosodium glutamate (MSG), a controversial ingredient that’s heavily criticised; it’s also a trillion-dollar industry laughing all the way to the bank. Originally, adverse reactions to MSG were called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, but it’s a Japanese invention.

In 1908, a chemistry professor in Tokyo discovered that glutamic acid was responsible for a flavour he found in kombu, the seaweed that is used to make the broth for miso soup. He used the word “umami” to describe this elemental taste, which was savoury, meaty, robust, nucleotide-flavoured goodness. He isolated the most soluble salt from glutamic acid and submitted a patent to produce MSG for use as a food additive and commercial production began in 1909 as “ajinomoto”, meaning “essence of taste”. (Ajinomoto is now the name of a Japanese company with annual revenues of US$9 billion [Dh33bn], responsible for producing 33 per cent of the world’s MSG.)

In its totally unprocessed and naturally occurring form, glutamic acid is present in all my favourite foods. I guess you could say it’s the magic ingredient; a flavour intensifier in aged and fermented products. Without it, there would be no miso or anchovy toast, no Caesar salads made with Worcestershire sauce and beautiful shavings of cheese, and no noodle dishes with soy sauce or fish sauce.

MSG critics are quick to insist that eating glutamates will make people’s heads explode, with joy I presume, since that’s sometimes how I feel when I’m eating anchovies. They say that glutamates are excitotoxins that can kill brain cells, and that might be why even small amounts of MSG can cause migraine headaches. Since I’ve never had a headache after eating MSG, I can only assume that I didn’t have the brain cells to spare in the first place. Strangely, though, I did get a headache after reading so many unsubstantiated claims about glutamates.

I don’t buy food containing the additive MSG and I don’t cook with it, but I do eat out, and I know that MSG is in everything from the coating in the fried chicken at the soul food place to the miso soup and the spicy tuna hand roll at the nearby sushi counter. Japanese kewpie mayonnaise contains MSG and there’s no substituting its unique flavour and texture. As David Chang of the burgeoning Momofuku empire told Food & Wine in 2005, kewpie is the world’s best mayonnaise “because it has MSG”. It’s in food because it makes people want to eat more.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico

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