From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

MSG - Unveiled


At an Asian Buffet.

It was a veritable hodgepodge of unidentifiable items on the plate in front of me, and the flavor profile was even more obscure. 

"Fried Potstickers."  Filled with seasoned ground beef.  (Really?)

"Stir Fried Mushrooms."  Drowning in Soy Sauce.

"Pepper Steak." Yes, there was a bell pepper, and yes there was steak.

"Sesame Chicken."  Fried chicken with sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

"Garlic Chicken."  Unidentifiable bits of fried (I think...) chicken with a salty peppery sauce.

"Mongolian Chicken." More of the same fried chicken (?) with an overly salty sauce.

"Spicy Tuna Roll."  A sushi-styled roll - maybe the only good thing on my plate, but with nori so stale it stuck to the roof of my mouth.

"Rose's Special Chicken."  A flavorless strip of baked chicken.

Oily steamed Rice.

That was all I dared try, even though I did take a cup of won ton soup, but after one bite, I could not finish it...

All of that on one plate, enough to fill me up, and "ice cream" for dessert.  For the bargain price of $10.00.  (Thank God lunch was not on me.)

There were close to 100 different offerings on the island of Asian Buffet, with 2 kinds of fried rice, a vegetable lo mein, egg rolls of some sort, won ton chips, spring rolls, enchiladas, a cheese covered fish of some sort, chicken on a skewer, sweet & sour chicken, onion rings, fried mushrooms, sesame balls, chicken nuggets...

They had stuffed fresh fruit, canned fruits, pastries, jello, pudding, cookies, cakes and some other bizarre sweet offerings as well, should one not be full prior to hitting those options... 

It was salty.  Very salty.  It was also sweet.  Very sweet.  Overall, an overload of salty and sweet, with no room for middle ground on flavor. 

Was it worth it? Probably not.

Sadly, an hour later, I had a really bad headache and I was hungry, again.  I think that I became a victim of the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, a Monosodium Glutamate induced attack of headache, flushing and palpitations.  Monosodium Glutamate, known more commonly as MSG is used as a flavoring agent and preservative.

For thousands of years, Japanese cooks used a special ingredient called konbu, in their cooking. It was made from seaweed and used to make their dishes more tasty and more savory. In the early 1900's, an active ingredient was isolated from this seaweed and identified as monosodium glutamate (MSG). Shortly after that, the Japanese started to manufacture MSG in large quantities. It soon became a multi-million dollar business. Among the first to use MSG to enhance food taste were Chinese Restaurants in the United States. After World War II, all the major food companies in the world and many restaurants used MSG in their products.

Twenty-five years ago, more than two hundred fifty thousand metric tons or five hundred million pounds of MSG were being produced and sold. It is estimated now, that over one billion pounds are produced and sold annually. It is found in most processed foods, and many popular quick-prep food and soup items.  While many people believe that MSG makes foods taste better, others disdain it.

By the end of the 1960's, research data caused alarm about side effects associated with the use of food products made with MSG. At that time, Chinese Restaurants were exceptionally popular. About the same time, a famous Chinese doctor complained about getting headaches and tightness of his temple whenever he ate at a Chinese restaurant. Also, at about this time, the phrase 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' first appeared in the media. Some time thereafter, due to an outcry of indignation from the Chinese restaurants, it was relabeled 'MSG Syndrome.' Nonetheless, 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' is still widely used to describe any unpleasant reaction people experience who think they are sensitive to MSG.
How is this so? MSG is a modified form of glutamic acid to which sodium replaces hydrogen forming monosodium glutamate or MSG. According to research data, the glutamate radical of the molecule is the part that causes the 'MSG Syndrome.' Other substances such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and autolyzed yeast contain anywhere from ten to fifty percent MSG. Many oyster flavored sauces and other Chinese sauces, which are used extensively by Chinese restaurants, have MSG in them. It is also used in some chicken bases that make up many a Chinese restaurant soup; there are a number of cooks who believe that these soup products do not contain MSG and unknowingly, they use them.

Because of earlier unfavorable publicity regarding MSG, many people are aware that the Chinese restaurant industry has suffered. This is true, even though most people know that when Chinese food is properly prepared, it is the most healthy and tasty of all known cuisines, and that it does not have to have MSG to make it so.

My personal advice to the Chinese restaurant industry is todo everything it its power to try to remove the stigma of this syndrome associated with Chinese foods. Only then can the Chinese restaurant industry regain its position, in the mind of the American public, as provider of wholesome and healthy cuisine.

That is the bad news for Chinese restaurants. The good news is that the MSG syndrome problem can be eliminated by better cooking techniques and by using newer products on the market.  These new products, most called ribotides, are powders that can be used the same way one uses MSG; they enhance the taste of all food products and will not cause 'MSG Syndrome.' Now, they are used by many major food manufacturers to replace MSG as a flavor enhancer. Not only are manufacturers using these new products, restaurants and individuals are, too.

The Chinese restaurant you frequent that clearly says No MSG, may be using a ribotide. Restaurants that are not Chinese are using them, too; so are many major hotels.  Ask your local restaurant not to use MSG. Most will willingly oblige.  When in doubt, ask for nutritional information from the restaurant that you frequent most often.  That way you will discover a surprise or confirm that indeed, the restaurant does not use MSG.

Until then, I think I am going to do my simple recipe of Black Pepper Shrimp for dinner, instead of what I had planned (Drunken Prawns.)  Good Eating, Friends... 
Black Pepper Shrimp


2 pounds whole jumbo-size shrimp in their shells, heads left on

2 Tablespoons corn oil

2 Tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 red hot chili pepper, seeded and minced

2 shallots, peeled and minced

1/4 cup corn oil

1/4 cup rice wine or dry sherry

1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 Tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper


1. Remove the tiny feet of each shrimp, leave head and tail on. Then rinse well and paper-towel dry them.

2. Heat oil and saute ginger, garlic, chili pepper, and shallots for one minute then add shrimp and stir-fry for two minutes.

3. Add wine and cover and cook another two minutes, then remove cover and add the salt and pepper and stir for a minute, then serve over rice.

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  1. Colin, your blogs are always enjoyable.
    A few years back, I was horribly dizzy from having had lunch at Panda Express at the Tanforan Park shopping center.
    I haven't gone back since to any Panda.
    The menu/food you describe sounds like some dishes I've seen before at some Asian buffet-style restaurants....everything is one color and liquidy. Ug.

    The shrimp recipe sounds very good, and easy to make--Jen loves shrimp too, so I'll be making it for us both.

  2. This used to be one of our favorite restaurants in San Antonio. That was months ago when food was good and waiters friendly. Over the past few months I guess success made them feel they could "dish" anything out and you see waiters going around with a sour face as if they were doing you a favor, the sushi that used to be great is now only mainly rice with cream cheese and the food in general similar to what you get frozen from any Chinese grocery store. We wanted to give them another chance and today on top of the usual mediocre service and food they actually charged us a kids meal and 10% gratuity on the total bill because we had a 6th guest: a 2 year old who didn't eat anything and sat on his parents lap all the time. The kids bill cost more than any of the adults! Sadly will not be going back.