Southeast Asia: The Other MSG

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MSG: the “other” salt…

Monosodium glutamate. In the Western world, it’s considered worse than a cockroach infestation at a Chinese restaurant.  MSG is an allergy; a dirty habit; the cancer of good cuisine.

But, like so many of our dietary trends, disdaining MSG is a luxury reserved for developed countries.  Here in Southeast Asia, the only additive that out-sells this food supplement is fish paste.  And it is an essential ingredient for everything.

I recently asked my students to write recipes for their favorite dishes.  “Teacha, what is this?” one girl held an old Tupperware container filled with salt-like crystals.

“That’s MSG.  Do you use this much when you cook?”  Heads bobbed up and down.

“What does it mean?”  The same student pointed at the letters I’d written on the board.


Monosodium glutamate was originally called Aji-no-moto, a Japanese word meaning “essence of taste”; it was discovered by the Suzuki brothers in 1909.  In doing this research, I could find no conclusive evidence online to prove that it was slowly poisoning my body – or any of the other horrific attributes it’s assigned in the West.

Honestly, I’d prefer it over fish paste, any day.

A Lonely Planet Forum on the issue:

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