I realize that I have a variety of ways to add umami to what I cook: soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, mushrooms, anchovies… But, it occurred to me on reading this article, I select these foods because they’re high in glutamate. Why not just add MSG directly? God knows it was popular when I was in high school, for example. John Mahoney discusses the flavor enhancer at Buzzfeed:
In the last three years, perhaps the boldest thing Chef David Chang has done with food is let it rot. In his tiny Momofuku research and development lab in New York’s East Village, Chang and his head of R&D Dan Felder have obsessed over the many delicious things that happen when molds and fungi are treated like gourmet ingredients rather than evidence that you need to clean out your fridge.
Without fermentation, we would live in a sad world without beer, cheese, miso, kimchi, and hundreds of other delicious things humans have enjoyed for centuries. But in the carefully labeled containers stacked around the cramped confines of their lab, Chang and Felder have been fermenting new things. They’ve turned mashed pistachios, lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes into miso-like pastes Chang calls “hozon” (Korean for “preserved”). They’ve created variations on Japanese tamari — a by-product of miso production that’s similar to soy sauce — with fermented spelt and rye they call “bonji” (“essence”). They’ve even replicated the Japanese staple katsuobushi (a log of dried, smoked, and fermented bonito that’s shaved into bonito flakes) using fermented pork tenderloin instead of fish.
The flavor Chang and Felder are chasing in creating these new fermented products is umami — the savory “fifth taste” detectable by the human tongue along with salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. When bacteria and fungi break down the glucose in foods that are fermenting, they release waste products. And the waste valued in Momofuku’s lab above all others is glutamic acid, the amino acid that creates the taste of umami on our tongues.
Also on the shelf in Chang’s lab, underneath the jars containing foods in various states of controlled spoilage, is a giant tin of monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG — perhaps the most infamously misunderstood and maligned three letters in the history of food. It just so happens that inside that tin of MSG is the exact molecule Chang and his chefs have worked so hard for the last three years to tease out of pots of fermenting beans and nuts. It’s pure glutamic acid, crystallized with a single sodium ion to stabilize it; five pounds of uncut, un-stepped-on umami, made from fermented corn in a factory in Iowa.
We’ve only known for sure that our tongue has specific taste buds for glutamic acid for 13 years. So for chefs like Chang, the Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal, Umami Burger’s Adam Fleischman, and many others around the world, umami’s flavors have become one of cooking’s most exciting new frontiers. The new flavors they’re creating use advanced methods to expand on what millions around the world (but especially in east Asia) have known for centuries — that foods rich in glutamic acid are delicious, and we want to eat them.
For these chefs, the path to understanding umami inevitably leads them to MSG, which is chemically identical to the glutamic acid they’re creating from scratch. And yet Chang wouldn’t think of using MSG in his restaurants today. He told me he doesn’t even use it at home, despite being a professed lover of MSG-laced Japanese Kewpie mayo. After decades of research debunking its reputation as a health hazard, and uninterrupted FDA approval since 1959, MSG remains a food pariah — part of a story that spans a century of history, race, culture, and science and says more about how we eat today than any other. . .