How to get people to love MSG

Chinese families love family dinners, even if family members don’t necessarily love each other. Every holiday season (and there are many), Chinese restaurants fill their banquet halls to the brim with jovial families (and quiet families all on their phones), and our stomaches with mediocre plates of steamed cod and fire-roasted pork belly.

After every meal, my parents would get in the car, and would always comment on how much monosodium glutamate they thought was in the food. They would vow never to return to the restaurant again if they felt thirsty from the MSG.

So I was surprised to learn that Ajinomoto is trying to rehabilitate MSG’s image around the world. In Japan, apparently, people use it all the time. Like this YouTuber who films himself making a bowl of ramen (from scratch!) every Friday. You’ll notice that he generically (?) writes 味の素, the MSG manufacturer’s name, as one of the soy sauce-based tare‘s ingredients for this mouthwatering bowl of Yokohama-style ramen.

So homemade ramen and MSG go hand in hand together. But here’s a poster from ifc mall in Hong Kong promoting the newest international branch of Konjiki Hototogisu, a shop from Shinjuku that serves ramen with a rich clam broth and a hint of truffle oil.

Having no added MSG adds a further eight Michelin stars to Konjiki Hototogisu.

Here’s a photo of the gorgeous, but small, shio bowl I had from the store in January for good measure. To be honest though, I think half of the purchase price went to the rent to keep this store open in a luxury mall.

Shio Hamaguri Soup Ramen for HKD 128. Photographed January 2020.

When the New York Times covered Ajinomoto’s campaign, the newspaper mentioned something that I actually hadn’t heard of before: Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Adam Ragusea does a much better job analyzing the origins of this fake medical term, but the point is that this “medical condition” stigmatized Asian American cuisine for decades:

Even now, MSG is shunned in some circles. Lucky Lee’s, a Chinese-inspired restaurant opened in April by a white health coach in Manhattan, advertised a “clean” version of the cuisine, which would not be made with MSG and some other ingredients. That brought an outcry from people who felt she had appropriated and demeaned Chinese cuisine; the restaurant closed in December.

“As soon as I heard the actual definition for Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, it hurt because I know it’s steeped in decades of xenophobia,” Ms. Mai, who has a Vietnamese background, wrote in an email.

It’s sad to see a history of people using MSG to find excuses to entrench prejudice against immigrants to the United States, and to shamelessly appropriate Chinese American food while “including “a lot of Chinese elements” like “lucky bamboo” and jade.

But I would also gently suggest that MSG’s terrible reputation isn’t just a straightforward story of white people being awful. Otherwise, why would this random Asian American I found on YouTube make a whole video complaining about the MSG in Knorr’s chicken bouillon powder, and how dry his mouth feels? Just like what my parents complain about?

When folks balk at MSG, what are they actually complaining about? The amount of chemicals on their food, or how much of an insult to their time or to their wallets it is to learn that someone took a shortcut to make their favorite, overpriced bowl of clam shio ramen?

Who knows?