MSG Belongs In Your Cooking — Especially At Thanksgiving

Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images.
Hot dogs for Fourth of July. Ham at Christmas. We’ve long associated certain dishes with our favorite holidays, and no federal day off lends itself to that sentiment more than Thanksgiving. Turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac and cheese, cranberry sauce, and green beans. But for many Americans, the fourth Thursday of November isn’t always Turkey Day, just ask comedian Jenny Yang
“[Growing up], we at some point did start to have some sort of Thanksgiving-ish, but like very immigrant Chinese American Thanksgiving dinner,” Yang says. Instead of turkey with stuffing, it’d be turkey with sticky rice. Some years they’d swap turkey for duck. These days, they go sans poultry and all in on hot pot.
And some of that food includes one core component that’s often found in the Asian foods Yang grew up with: MSG.
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavor enhancer that triggers your umami sensors and tricks your brain into thinking soups and sauces are well-seasoned but at the fraction of the sodium in salt. It’s delicious, safe (according to the US Food and Drug Administration) — and has largely been demonized by Western palates, chefs, and Goop-style bloggers, with little to no cultural understanding or factual accuracy. In recent years, science has shown claims that MSG causes numbness, lethargy, or heart palpitations to be false. But despite these classifications, the effects of decades of unfounded studies that termed “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” which was added to Merriam-Webster in 1993, continue today. Step into an Asian restaurant, and you’ll still see the “No MSG” signs that were once as ubiquitous as “Have A Nice Day” takeout bags. 
Earlier this year, the comedian partnered with food manufacturer Ajinomoto, which created the first MSG product in 1909, to “put respect on MSG’s name.” But it’s been tough changing longstanding misconceptions no matter how clear the science is. “People, consumers, they don't always want to hear facts,” says Tia Rains, a nutrition scientist who leads Ajinomoto’s food innovation and customer engagement teams. “I wish that were different, as a scientist, because that's what convinces me of things, but you can't lead with facts with consumers.”
This demonization of MSG hasn’t come out of nowhere; it’s yet another victim of food colonization. Just exactly how we define food colonization is wide-encompassing, whether it’s bloggers claiming to have “discovered” new ingredients that have long been staples in other countries, wellness experts touting the “right” and “wrong” foods to eat, or chefs, no matter how well-intentioned, strip certain ingredients from traditional recipes to make dishes for Western tastes, which have long been framed as the only palate that matters. While we all love a trendy restaurant that offers a fresh twist on the classics, there's a delicate balance in any conversation about appropriation and appreciation.
“The colonization of food is still so relevant to 2022 mostly because it's just another word for power to me,” Yang says. “It's all about who has the power, who doesn't, who runs things, who gets to name things, who gets to be in charge of things.” “When you are the colonizer who maybe doesn't understand the culture that's in the minority, you might not understand the role of a certain ingredient like MSG and how important it is to that culture,” Yang adds. 
Classifying a key ingredient in a culture’s food as “not clean” or “unsafe” puts that characterization back onto the wider community. After all, it's often through food that we communicate who we are to others by connecting us back to our heritage. And nothing brings people together more than breaking bread over a shared meal, like Thanksgiving.  
So if you’re looking for some conversation starters to drop at the dinner table, or if you’re trying to avoid the dreaded political debates, maybe it’s time to talk about MSG. “It's not like I need everyone to incorporate three hours of MSG activism a week into their lives,” Yang says. “But have a level of awareness that you're willing to share casually when MSG is brought up in your life.”
As for the food itself, Yang suggests mixing things up this Thanksgiving, whether it’s foregoing the traditional trimmings or showcasing cultural dishes at your Friendsgiving. Or if you really want to try using MSG in your own cooking, try this gravy recipe from Ajinomoto.

Cajun Gravy by Ajinomoto Executive Chef Chris Koetke

4 Tablespoons butter 
½ cup minced onion 
1/3 cup minced celery 
1/3 cup minced green pepper 
2 minced cloves of garlic 
½ cup flour 
1 quart rich turkey stock from a roasted turkey 
1 bay leaf 
1 teaspoon chile flakes 
½ teaspoon ground black pepper 
½ teaspoon MSG
salt to taste 
1. In a medium saucepan, sauté onion, celery, and green pepper in butter over moderate heat until the onions are translucent, and the celery and green peppers are soft. 
2. Add garlic and flour and mix until well incorporated.  Continue to cook over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is a light brown color (it will take about 5 minutes). 
3. Add 1 cup of the stock and bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a whisk.  Bring to a boil.  It will turn into a very thick sauce.
4. Add remaining stock and bring to a boil stirring constantly. 
5. Add bay leaf, chile flakes, black pepper, and MSG.  Let simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. 
6. Add salt where necessary.

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