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Grim's Grub: A much maligned spice

A natural substance that boosts flavor.

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Those who have the fortune of knowing someone from the Far East are both blessed and cursed with the knowledge that traditional food from China, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and elsewhere has certain qualities that are hard to reproduce.

Luckily, reproducing one of those qualities is as simple as adding a magic ingredient.

We all know the tongue has receptors for different kinds of tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Some include another, more controversial flavor called savory, or as the Japanese scientist who discovered it called it, umami.

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Graphic defining the five basic tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami. Illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

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It's controversial for a few reasons. For one, it might not be a flavor so much as a sensation that heightens other flavors. Second, since the 1960s the most concentrated source of umami has been considered by many either toxic or a serious allergen.

In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda theorized that certain foods contained a compound that enhanced the flavor of dishes. He noted several ingredients that seemed to have this compound, particularly seaweed. So he patented a process for concentrating and extracting it, calling it glutamic acid, or what we know as monosodium glutamate or MSG.

For more than 50 years, MSG was used willingly by cooks in the know, though likely it was kind of exotic for those days. But it had its place in the kitchen.

In the 1960s, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter, not a study, by a Maryland doctor - Robert Ho Man Kwok - who alleged that he had mild allergic symptoms whenever he ate food from a Chinese restaurant. He suggested the blame went to MSG.

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Structural chemical formula of monosodium glutamate (or MSG) with spoonful of a yellow, dry, seasoning spice mix and bouillon cubes. MSG is used in cooking as a flavor enhancer in many foods. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Then began the smear campaign and the term CRS (Chinese Restaurant Syndrome). People followed that letter with tales of vague, nondescript symptoms that they also experienced after eating Chinese food, and MSG has been a four-letter word ever since.

There was one study done shortly after where a neuroscientist took concentrated MSG, injected a massive dose into laboratory mice and found serious neurological problems. But actual human studies have been less than productive.

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There have been several studies, admittedly fairly small, where a link between MSG and CRS has been tested. Those studies (which included individuals who claimed to be allergic) came up showing the contrary. If the test subjects were told the food had MSG (even if it did not), the subjects reported having symptoms. If the subjects were told the food didn't have MSG (even if it did), they did not have symptoms at all.

In two tests, one in 1993 and one in 1999, just one test subject reported mild symptoms after unknowingly ingesting MSG. They repeated the trial, but blinded the test givers as well as the test takers (as in, nobody knew what had or did not have MSG until after the test). That same test subject no longer showed any symptoms, proving his first result unrepeatable.

At this point, I'm sure we still have skeptics reading, and I don't necessarily think you need convincing because, hey, you can enjoy the flavor enhancing properties of MSG without sprinkling the crystals into your food, and you likely already do.

I support any desire such skeptics might have to avoid the concentrated MSG powder, but for the sake of your taste buds, please keep in mind the flavorful, natural ingredients you can use to enhance any dish. Those include tomato paste, sardines, fish sauce, nori seaweed, miso paste, mushrooms, aged cheeses like Parmesan, fermented vegetables, some eggs, ham, shrimp and much more.

So by all means, avoid MSG powder. But do your taste buds a flavor and keep adding stinky cheese to your pasta, and at least once, add a drop of fish sauce to your scrambled eggs (hold your nose while cooking) and thank me later.

I'll include a recipe with MSG powder, and one without.

C hinese Fried Rice (with MSG powder)

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Mixed Fried Rice. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


  • 2 cups cold rice (preferably cooked 1-2 days prior)
  • Vegetable oil (approximately 1-2 tablespoons depending on your pan)
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce
  • Small splash sesame oil
  • 1-2 splashes soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon MSG powder
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 chopped green onions
  • 2 shallots (or 1/2 cup chopped red onion)
  • 2 eggs
  • White pepper to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • Red pepper powder (to taste, optional)

Start with a hot pan, preferably cast iron or a wok. More importantly, it must be a large pan. Add your oil and rotate to coat the entire surface. Pour off excess oil. Once the oil sends up small wisps of smoke, add the shallots and keep them moving vigorously.
Once they start to turn slightly transparent, add the garlic and stir vigorously. Once the garlic smells cooked instead of raw (you know it when you smell it), add the rice. Toss or stir the contents thoroughly and break up chunks. All the rice should be in individual, dry-ish grains.

In a separate bowl, scramble your eggs, then push the rice to the side in the pan and pour your sesame oil in the empty space, followed by the eggs. Allow it to cook slightly before scrambling it in the pan further, then mixing in with the rice.

Next add the soy sauce, fish sauce, MSG and remaining seasonings and stir to combine. Finally, add the green onions. Continue stirring over high heat just long enough to heat up the onions, but not long enough to wilt them.

This quick meal can be completed in less than 10 minutes if you have all ingredients handy.

Caesar Salad Dressing (without MSG)

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Caesar salad dressing. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


Courtesy of therecipecritic.com

  • 6 anchovies in oil
  • 2 egg yolks, or substitute Greek yogurt or mayonnaise
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Liquefy the anchovies, egg yolks, garlic and lemon juice until smooth and creamy, then add the remaining ingredients and pulse until smooth.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.

Related Topics: FOODRECIPESHISTORY
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