A chemistry professor comes home one evening after a long day behind test tubes at the Tokyo Imperial University. It’s Japan in 1908 and the country has just become a major Asian power after it’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war. The evening is crisp so the professor’s wife cooks up a special broth for their supper. Upon slurping down his first mouthful the scientist turns to his wife and through tiny, round glasses, high on the bridge of his nose, he asks what the magical ingredient for such a tasty and heartwarming soup is. She replies sweetly: it’s kombu. In that moment, neither spouse could have suspected such a simple broth would become just as historic as Japan’s dominance over Russia.
The professor’s name was Kikunae Ikeda and he would later go back to his laboratory and successfully isolate the amino acid responsible for the cosy taste of his wife’s soup. He would coin it the fifth flavour profile ‘umami’ (joining the already established palette posse of sweet, sour, bitter and salty) and entirely change the nature of food consumption in the 20th century.
Ikeda was a patriotic man and knew that if his country were to continue reckoning with global supremacies, Japanese culture would need a sustained sense of wellbeing. The first port of call, he thought, would be to boost the dietary conditions of the impoverished. While studying in Germany, he had learned that good taste promoted good digestion.
By August the following year, Dr. Ikeda would develop and patent a process, through which the amino acid could be extracted, crystalised and mass-produced. He would name his brand Aji-No-Moto (‘the essence of taste’) but perhaps it would go on to be more widely recognised by its chemical compound shorthand: MSG.
Monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt component of the complex glutamic acid. Glutamic acid occurs naturally in foods such as mushrooms, asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, meat and, as Ikeda learned, edible seaweed. But despite its innocuous beginnings on the spectrum of human awareness, MSG has been the subject of much controversy over the last century.
In the 1960s there began significant complaints of a phenomenon called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’ Symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, forgetfulness and even cardiac arrhythmia were reported by consumers of MSG. Fear broke out that an over consumption could result in detrimental effects on the human nervous system. The anecdotal evidence was enough to prompt several experiments (albeit on lab mice) but the jury remained out on whether these sudden changes in wellness were incidental or coincidental. The Food and Drug Administration ruled MSG safe; Asian chefs continued to utilise it in their kitchens and punters continued to flock to restaurants, warungs and street vendors in pursuit of that soulful, savoury umami hit.
Mrs Ikeda certainly wasn’t trying to poison her husband that evening. That would be rather unsavoury. She was merely doing as wives and mothers do and creating a dinnertime meal with the piquancy of ‘comfort’ for her family. She could have easily added some shiitake or beef instead but the kombu was already in the cupboard. She also could have also added her own breast milk.
Human breast milk is 10 times as high in glutamic acid as ordinary cows milk and even though the tongue may find itself in some questionable scenarios later in life, the taste buds are savvy little survival mechanisms. At a very rudimentary level they aim to chaperon their landlords toward or away from foods based on nutritional value. High in umami often indicates high in protein. A similar principle can be applied for the other flavour profiles. High in sweetness: contains sugars. Salty to the taste: contains minerals. Notes of bitterness: put this down, it could be poisonous.
From infancy humans are nurtured on glutamic acid and, consequently, seek out that same sense of satiation in food as adults. While this notion may explain the reason a miso soup can illicit instantaneous feelings of good health, a bowl of Raman is exactly what one craves after getting caught in the rain and tourists dive face first into local food the second they land in Bali, it does not alone excuse a greater awareness around the intake of the additive MSG.
It is a cleverly avoided fallacy among proponents of MSG that the ‘processed free glutamic acid’ used in treated foods is identical to the glutamic acid found in unadulterated, unmodified foods, and in human biology. One could even be forgiven for improperly digesting the name.
The distinguishing factors between the two are the by-products of manufacture. The glutamate present in unprocessed or unfermented foods is a single amino acid, called Lglutamic acid. What we ingest in a bag of Doritos, or add to our Mie Goreng, is L-glutamic acid that has been freed from protein (hence the name) and stabilised with salt. The original host of the glutamic acid likely wasn’t seaweed either, but a cheaper staple such as molasses or wheat.
During the procedure several other impurities also sneak their way into the blend and the result is a white crystalline powder that could not have occurred naturally. Upon consumption, the receptors in the stomach send a message to the brain instructing it to plate up a full serving of dopamine because the body still believes it has found protein. Depending on how one views the role of food in their life, this could be considered a false reward system, or just a different route to the same destination.
When a cook prepares food for a group of eager eaters, be it betwixt the white walls of an exclusive Michelin star restaurant in Hong Kong or on a grimy BBQ, beachfront in Bali, everyone involved in that transaction is after a similar sense of fulfilment. The customers, that their stomachs are satiated; the cook, that his food is appreciated. When that level of fulfilment is met, or better yet, exceeded, each party can indulge momentarily in their individual contentment. Surely this same, simple pleasure was shared around the Ikeda table that evening in 1908. The MSG hype and stigma that ensued was unwarranted and, plainly, just in bad taste.