The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
— Isaiah Berlin (via Archilochus)
In a previous Friday Food Finding, we examined the myriad transformations of the complex Maillard reaction. Today’s discovery hails from another part of the world, and is technically a lot simpler and fundamental – not just a new seasoning, but a new flavour.
After all, we know that the tongue has a relatively limited range of signals it can detect; salt, sweetness, bitterness and acidity are the four we’ve known about for a long time. The rest, from cardamom to peppers, is the work of other organs, mainly the nose. But it would take a Japanese chemist (quite the gourmand too, I bet) to figure out a fifth flavour that does come from the tongue.
Ikeda Kikunae (池田菊苗) was born in 1864 in Kyoto, into a family of samurai descent, and right at the verge of the upheaval that overtook Japan with the Meiji Restoration. It was a tumultuous time at every level of Japanese society, but for young Ikeda, the introduction of Western science into formerly feudal Japan seems to have suited him just fine – in 1885 he enrolled in Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), where he studied chemistry, and went on to play a leading role in introducing Western chemistry into Japan’s burgeoning academia. He even studied in Germany and the UK for a bit, and seems to have become friends with Natsume Soseki, the famous writer of I am a Cat and Botchan (who apparently hated London).
Maybe it was Ikeda’s overseas adventures that gave him a wide range of cuisines to sample, from which he had one important insight. In his own words:
‘”There is a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well-known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty.”
Yet his research was still based in the cuisine of his homeland, specifically around the ubiquitous dashi stock. Made of kelp (kombu) and shaved bonito (katsuoboshi), its savoury, pleasing taste forms the foundation of all sorts of Japanese cooking, from soups to braising liquid to sauces. The legend goes that Ikeda was enjoying his wife’s homecooked dinner when he started thinking about why dashi stock tastes good, but from the examples that he gives in the quote above, it seems he has been thinking about the savouriness of food – the key to deliciousness – for a long time.
Whichever his inspiration, Ikeda was determined to find out where the magic resided in dashi, and he went about it the old fashioned way in 1907. First, he made a 30-something litre pot of dashi stew. Then he reduced it until all the water was gone, whereupon brown crystals appeared. The crystals turned out to be glutamic acid, a major amino acid; but more relevantly, they turned out to be the magic. In 1908, Ikeda termed the flavour umami – which, translated to Japanese, really just means ‘delicious flavour’ – and also patented a way to produce the crystals directly. This is what gave us monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
Food, Science and Society
The subsequent history of MSG has been a strange ride, and a sort of reflection of how food reflects the views of the society it feeds, with its own cycles of fashion.
The Japanese were quick to capitalise on Ikeda’s discovery, founding the Ajinomoto company (the name means ‘essence of taste’) and marketing the powder throughout Asia. For a rapidly industrialising and opening country in a rapidly changing age, the advent of MSG was marketed as a sort of miracle – a cheat code in the kitchen as well as in the restaurant. It dovetailed with changing perceptions of all sorts of things – of a housewife’s role in a modern family (this when the ‘proper’ role of women was still at home); of what food should be like (this when the science of food was still in its infancy).
It wasn’t long before MSG met resistance, though, from forces that we would quickly recognise today. First it was chefs and cookbook writers, who objected to MSG on the grounds of flavour – it was too strong, too unsubtle, too overwhelming. Perhaps, much like a cheat code does to a game, it took the idea of finesse out of cooking – or that was the idea. This line of attack never gained much leverage; it’s probably quite hard to say that something tastes ‘bad’ when it tastes really, really good, as MSG does.
In the 1960s, however, MSG became the centre of a conflict we are still in today – the struggle between industrialised food production on one hand, and the idea of ‘natural’ food on the other. In the US, a ‘syndrome’ was created in 1968, now called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’; symptoms like palpitations, headaches and the like were blamed on eating too much MSG-laden food in Chinese restaurants.
What is it?
The funny thing is, despite all the talk about the use of MSG as an additive to foods, the fact is that MSG occurs naturally in all sorts of foods. Ikeda’s initial extraction from dashi is a clue – he didn’t need to process the crystals after boiling down the kombu stock, because MSG is what there already is. The bit of MSG that gives flavour is the G, or the glutamate ion, which binds to receptors on the tongue; while Ikeda theorised about the umami flavour then, it was not until the 1980s that ‘umami’ was recognised as the name for the flavour he found.
So what is glutamate? Well, nothing really – just one of the most important chemicals to human functioning there is. Our brains are packed with glutamate, which is used as an excitatory neurotransmitter (to activate neurons). Glutamate is also used to create another neurotransmitter, GABA, which is an important inhibitor (to get neurons to rest). In a manner of speaking, glutamate is both the accelerator and the brake pedal of the brain.
And to be honest, even without adding any MSG, you would be hard pressed to avoid eating one form of glutamate or another and experiencing its full, rounded flavour. Almost everything that comes from an animal has it, from meat to milk to eggs; fermentation helps break down proteins and produces even more glutamates, which is why Parmesan cheese tastes a lot more savoury than fresh milk. The same is true for soybeans and wheat, which are quite bland – until fermentation with some salt turns them into the black magic that is soy sauce. Mushrooms have it; potatoes have it. Even tomatoes have it, which is why they are so good in a soup – they are both sharply acidic, yet comfortingly savoury, once you cook them.
So is MSG responsible for headaches, palpitations and other symptoms of going to Chinese restaurants? It most probably isn’t; double-blind tests have shown that MSG doesn’t have any effect. Which makes sense – if it’s in everything we eat, and if it’s something we depend on to function, there is no evolutionary advantage in us having adverse reactions to it. Imagine if water made us nauseated, or if fresh air made us sneeze – we wouldn’t last very long as a species.
Sure, the culture of food will always be changing, and we may think better or worse of gaming our sensory systems by sprinkling a little MSG in food. Even if we know it’s natural, it doesn’t really look natural, that crystalline white powder that is a cheat code for flavour. But that’s why Ikeda’s work is so awesome – it stands at a fascinating junction of nature and nurture. It is an industrial process of creation, a product and symbol of modernity; yet it is also the discovery of something universally enjoyed by humans, a sign of shared humanity and taste.