Photo by Perri Pivovar

Dear MSG,

I know that you’ve had some tough times the past few years. People have called to ban you, to oust you from the kitchen…

By Annie Choi
March 14, 2014 | , , , , , ,

Dear MSG,

If you browse Yelp for Chinese restaurants around New York City, you’ll find users asking for “authentic” Chinese food—”real” Chinese food that “real” people in China eat. Where can I find “legit” Sichuan noodles? Where can I get dumplings that taste just like the ones in Shanghai? What’s the tastiest spot in Sunset Park, which is “the real Chinatown,” and does it use MSG? The answer is almost always yes.

MSG, I want to thank you. Thank you for your boundless depth of flavor. You are the umami to my ramen, the zing in my teriyaki, and the je ne sais quoi to my vegetarian duck. You make my vinegar vinegary, my ranch dressing ranchy, and my Doritos dangerously irresistible. Please look away while I finish this entire bag by myself; I’m ugly when I eat. You are in yogurt, bread, cheese, and all kinds of nuts, including Corn Nuts, which are the second best type of nut (the order is 1. Almonds 2. Corn Nuts 3. Cashews. Last place goes to Brazil nuts—no offense to Brazil). For some reason, you are in shampoo and lotion. I don’t eat shampoo or lotion, but if I did, I’m sure I’d find them zesty and flavorful.

You are the umami to my ramen, the zing in my teriyaki, and the je ne sais quoi to my vegetarian duck.

You are found naturally in tomatoes, mushrooms, and beets, and the other day I made a soup that included all three of them. And guess what? It was delicious. If I reviewed my own soup on Yelp, I would give it four-and-a-half stars. “This dish is, like Annie herself, spicy and balanced. It’s perhaps her best. However, I must deduct half a star for the lukewarm service and messy kitchen.”

You were first developed at the University of Tokyo in 1908. Tell me, what is like being over one hundred? My boyfriend’s great-aunt Flo—yes he actually has a great-aunt Flo—is 92. She sleeps with her head hanging off the bed so she won’t mess up her hair. What I’m trying to say is that both you and Great-Aunt Flo look great for your age. What’s your secret? Is it MSG moisturizer?

I know that you’ve had some tough times the past few years. People have called to ban you, to oust you from the kitchen. They held that you were unsafe and toxic and unnatural. They accused you of causing headaches, diarrhea, and increased heart rate, as well as asthma, cancer, and brain disease. I read that you caused “fuzzy thinking,” which is as vague as it is untrue. Korea and Japan just ate, like, three thousand pounds of MSG for lunch and everyone seems to be thinking very clearly as they design our phones, TVs, and our robot army.

Life has been unfair to you. Not a single study has found you to be unsafe or toxic. The FDA, American Medical Association, and National Academy of Sciences ran studies and they all confirmed that you’re safe to consume. But you know, someone ate Chinese food on Bayard Street and then got a headache, so it must’ve been your fault. Another said they took down some MSG-dusted chicken, MSG-dipped noodles, and MSG-laced watercress, and then felt horrible and tired. But maybe it was the fact that they ate a giant pile of food? Delicious, flavorful food drenched in umami?

When food-obsessed New Yorkers search the outer boroughs for authentic, home-cooked cuisine, what they are looking for is you, whether they like it or not.

MSG, I just want to say that I’m here for you. I stand by you. I stand by you because I stand by Doritos. Because I stand by soy sauce and ponzu sauce. Because I stand by gochujang and doenjang. When I go to a restaurant on 32nd Street, I feel a little disappointed seeing a NO MSG sign. When I go to a hole-in-the-wall Taiwanese joint in some part of Queens that requires a car to get to, I feel a bit let down when the menu mentions—in bold italic all caps—that there’s NO MSG. I eat and wonder, what if this had the flavor-enhancing, mouth-watering affects of Aji-No-Moto? Would it be better? Is my tongue a little sad at the lost potential? Are we all falling short of our potential? What does it mean to be authentic? When are modern techniques and ingredients accepted into tradition? As you can see, you bring up a lot of heavy shit.

When food-obsessed New Yorkers search the outer boroughs for authentic, home-cooked cuisine, what they are looking for is you, whether they like it or not. You are the taste of home. My mother has a set of matching containers labeled with flour, sugar, and salt. The flour container is filled with MSG. She’s not much of a baker.

So thank you, MSG. I support all that you do and you’ve never once given me a rash.

That was from my laundry detergent.

Your friend,

Annie Choi

Photo by Brian Nunes

A stash of Aji-No-Moto (which translates to “Essence of Taste”) for purchase at a market in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Photo by Brian Nunes.

 

Annie Choi is the author of Shut Up, You're Welcome and Happy Birthday or Whatever. She lives in New York City. Visit her site at annietown.com.

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