Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meditations on MSG

Isn’t it about time for MSG (monosodium glutamate) to make a comeback in the culinary world? Although this flavor enhancer has been successfully eradicated in most of American cuisine because of the pervasive myth that MSG can cause adverse reactions and is unhealthy, MSG can truly bring a dish to life. Just ask the Chinese. At any restaurant in China one can order dish after dish of delicious delicacies and sprinkled on top are those delectable little crystals of MSG.

MSG is a flavor enhancer that brings out "umami" in dishes. Umami is considered the fifth flavor that our taste buds can recognize, the other four being sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Umami means savory—think of the heartiness of meat, mushrooms, or cheese. MSG adds a bit of this savory essence to food and brings more flavor to dishes that lack that hint of umami.

The issues associated with consuming MSG include the immediate effects of headaches, nausea, sweating, and some even argue that it contributes to Alzheimer’s and other long-term diseases. However, there does not seem to be any conclusive evidence for claims of allergies or Alzheimer’s. Blind studies continue to indicate that the so-called allergy to MSG is most likely a placebo effect. Glutamate naturally occurs in many living things, including food we eat, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and meat, and our bodies are designed to break it down. And although MSG contains sodium, it actually has less sodium per serving than table salt—perhaps a good addition to a low-sodium diet!

MSG is probably nothing to be afraid of and the FDA states that it is safe for human consumption, but the epidemic of fear of MSG continues to thrive in this country. Although most food purchased or cooked in America no longer contains MSG (even though it could contain naturally occurring glutamate), it can be purchased in Asian supermarkets. Look for packages or bottles in the spice section that contain white crystals. Try a taste test yourself by cooking a dish and adding MSG to one dish but not to the other—what do you think? If the Chinese cook nearly every dish with a pinch of this flavor enhancer, then perhaps it’s worth another try. Let go of the preconceptions of MSG and just see how it tastes—you might be surprised.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Time to Eat

In the words of Ecclesiastes, there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. The writers of Ecclesiastes refrained from stating that there is a time to eat, and a time to starve, however, they did comment that “every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor.” It is not merely a time to eat, but a time to enjoy eating, to take pleasure in the everyday occurrence of the consumption of food.

It seems that now is an exceptional time in the course of history to take such pleasure in eating. Television is constantly flooded not only with cooking shows but with shows detailing where to eat, how to eat, culinary history, explanations of how food is produced, and the various cultural underpinnings of food throughout the world. Entire magazines are devoted to food, as well as websites, newspaper articles, and blogs. Being a gourmand in today’s culture is more common than ever, with countless “foodies” running rampant through restaurants, snatching up as many cookbooks as possible, and searching for the perfect recipe.

So why is now a time to eat? As our world becomes more complicated and technologically advanced, perhaps it is through the simple act of eating food that people find a connection to a more authentic and genuine experience in their lives. As the world changes around us, food offers that promise of something seemingly solid and true in the midst of chaos.

The taste of certain foods—like a homemade brownie with a glass of milk—can bring back memories and experiences from times when it perhaps felt that we engaged more genuinely in our lives. Farm fresh eggs and beef just seem to feel more real than store-bought, hormone-pumped animal products, even when we smother them with mass-produced condiments. The search for ingredients that are indigenous to other countries can make our culinary creations based off recipes from countries like Brazil, China, or Spain seem somehow more authentically connected to their original cultural source. Every Thanksgiving, households across America attempt to replicate a “traditional” feast, based more off a Norman Rockwell painting than colonial times. And can people really experience sushi is all they eat are California rolls? Well, perhaps if they just drink enough sake…

Although oftentimes food is increasingly removed from its original source and merely mimics a genuine experience, we continue to look for authenticity in our food. Perhaps as long we simply believe that we are having a genuine experience, that is all that really matters. If someone has never been to Mexico, then can’t eating at a Tex-Mex restaurant chain convince him that he’s really experiencing Mexican cuisine? Food can bring joy into our lives, connect us with loved ones, and perhaps even allow us to experience another culture (even if it’s only in our imaginations), so why not eat up and enjoy?

Let it be a time to eat, a time to take pleasure in the simple act of tasting, chewing, and swallowing. Food can offer a glimpse of the divine and the authentic in an otherwise mundane and necessary activity, so indulge in a slice of earthly delight, smother the manna of life in butter, and feast upon this food for thought…