I’d like to share a cook’s guilty secret.
I like MSG.
I like cooking with it and I like eating it.
It wasn’t always like that.
Growing up, my mom never used MSG in her cooking, at least as far as I know. We did have a mysterious small red and white canister in a lonely corner of the pantry called ‘Accent’ (which I later found out was MSG) that claimed to add flavor to food without adding salt. I never paid it much attention and neither did Mom.
Then, when I later got into natural foods (way before it was a thing), neither msg nor any other ingredient referred to by initials had the slightest chance of darkening the door of my kitchen.
Back then, all I knew about it was that it was supposedly used a lot in Chinese (restaurant) food and that some people were allergic to it. And that would have probably been the extent of my MSG knowledge or experience, had I not taken a cook’s assistant job in one of Israel’s biggest yeshivas.
My job there was basically to prepare the guf (body) of a given dish – assembling and mixing the ingredients as instructed – and then turn over this golem to the head cook, Avrumy, who would ‘bring it to life’ with a series of Merlin-like spice sprinklings from his knowing hand.
Now at this point I was a pretty experienced cook in my own right and little of what he did surprised me – except for the liberal dash of what he called ‘avkat marak’ (soup-powder) into nearly every dish.
I didn’t get it. Wasn’t soup-powder meant for making soup? So, why was he putting this odorless pale yellow, parsley-flecked dust that seemed to add nothing to the recipe, into everything?
Once I suggested to him to leave it out of something. Though he usually took my suggestions seriously (and sometimes even took the suggestions themselves), this time he just waved me off with the distracted disdain one would give a clueless, interruptive child.
I figured it was just a meshugas of his and left it at that, but after leaving the job and making my rounds at several other institutional kitchens that embraced the same soup-powder fixation, I realized that there had to be more to the stuff than met the eye.
It was the MSG, I discovered. The monosodium glutamate within it. Because MSG apparently possessed the magical property of making whatever you put it in taste richer, louder, and more alive. (Now I knew why Chinese takeout always used to taste so good.)
The remaining 98% of the soup-powder – some nondescript starches, sugars, and preservatives – were just a ruse. A front for that wonder-chemical/spice, the philosopher’s stone that could turn culinary lead into gold.
I was outraged. I’d never stoop so low, I told myself. Cooks should be able to make real food out of real ingredients come out tasting good. And if they couldn’t, they should hang up their mitts.
A little later, I discovered the theory behind it. Apparently, besides the standard taste bud perceptions of sweet, sour, salty, and sharp, there was a crucial, yet often overlooked fifth one that the Japanese called ‘umami’. While certain natural foods had varying degrees of this taste, msg was a pure umami power-hit.
I don’t know if it was because it became cooler in my eyes because it was something ‘Japanese’, or because I was thrust into a job that wanted steak on a less-than-hamburger budget, but I caved in. And MSG, my erstwhile nemesis became a true and trusted friend.
I became a soup-powder connoisseur. Besides the all-purpose yellow stuff (officially ‘parve chicken’ soup), there was the rich, brown onion-soup powder (which, come to think of it, Mom did use way back when, for sour cream-onion dip when having company and in occasional recipes, so I guess MSG is in my DNA, sort of…), which is great in cholent; and the rather pallid, flour-based mushroom soup mix. I even sampled some of the ‘exotic’ flavors, such as tomato, which wasn’t tomato-ey enough to make a base for Italian dishes, as I hoped it would; green pea – basically useless; and a new flavor that was introduced and shortly after pulled, called ‘root vegetable’, which I actually liked – it had a fun orange color and tasted like celery.
But now with said job behind me and coming off of Pesach, when we essentially don’t use anything factory-made (artificial or not) at home and everything tastes really good anyway, I’m ready to step back and reevaluate my MSG infatuation. Maybe the Japanese have some other umami tricks up the sleeves of their kimonos I can learn from (besides those jars of exotic fermented things, for which you need to take out a mortgage to afford around here). Any ideas?
So we’ll see. But in the meantime, I’m happy I’ve had a chance to ‘confess’ and share with you the ‘emes’ when it comes to me and MSG.