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Other Names: Accent (trade name); Ajinomoto (Japanese trade name); sapore (Italian); wei jing (Chinese).

General Description: MSG (monosodium glutamate), a chemical compound in the form of a white, coarse powder with very little flavor of its own, acts as a flavor enhancer that seems to make the tongue more receptive to savory and salty tastes. For more than a thousand years, the Japanese have been using the brown seaweed kombu as the base for soup stocks. In 1908, a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, found that kombu is an especially rich source of monosodium glutamate. He also found that MSG provides a unique, savory taste, which he named umami (meaning “savory” or “delicious”), and added it to the other four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. A year after Ikeda’s discovery, the Japanese company Ajinomoto began selling pure MSG, extracting it from wheat gluten proteins.

The unfortunate aspect of MSG is that it has been exploited to provide a cheap, one-dimensional substitute for more complex flavors by industrial food manufacturers and less-than-stellar restaurants. Beginning in the late 1960s, MSG was blamed for “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” which afflicts susceptible people with sensations of burning, pressure, and chest pain.

Purchase and Avoid: Purchase MSG under the trade name Accent in America, or Ajimonoto in Asian markets.

Serving Suggestions: Add a pinch of MSG to soups, stocks, meat, vegetables, poultry, and fish to enhance natural flavor, not as a substitute for flavor.

Food Affinities: Most savory foods, especially fish, meat, poultry, seafood, soups, and vegetables.

from Quirk Books: