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From fried chicken to margaritas, chefs are reinventing MSG and pushing against anti-Asian stigma

July 30, 2021

Growing up, MiMi Aye’s family dinner table was always set with three shakers: salt, pepper — and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

“It’s part of my secret weapons when I cook,” said Aye, a Burmese food writer and cookbook author based in the U.K.

“It’s not, like, necessarily my favourite thing, but it’s really useful. And I hate that it’s been demonized to the extent that if someone does use it, they get brigaded” with negative comments online, she told Unforked host Samira Mohyeddin.

Aye is part of a growing chorus of culinary voices making the case that the ingredient — itself historically stigmatized, which can often be traced to anti-Chinese racism — is a game changer when used correctly.

MSG is the shelf-stable version of glutamate, an amino acid that can be found in several kinds of foods, including tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. It’s commonly added to processed foods, but can be added to enhance the flavour of savory foods.

Japanese biochemist Kikuane Ikeda developed MSG in 1908, when he sought to identify the source of umami flavour in his wife’s dashi broth, which is made out of kombu, or kelp.

It’s a key, “not-so-secret” ingredient in Aye’s Burmese fried chicken, featuring garlic, ginger, paprika and turmeric.

“You just need a little bit of [MSG]. I put it into the dry rub and it just kicks everything up a notch,” she said.

That said, Aye offers alternatives to MSG in her cookbooks, such as miso, if readers prefer.

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