Everything about China and it's culture

Everything about China and it's culture


The Flavor Spirit

In many places in the West, Chinese food has earned a bad rap as an unhealthy, low quality cuisine- largely owing to wei jing- which could be translated as The Flavor Spirit: MSG.

MSG has a very different reputation in China, and throughout much of Asia, than it does in the West.  Although a third of Americans claim MSG makes them ill, medical studies show that only a very small proportion of humans actually have any reaction to it, and these reactions only occur when it is administered in large doses on an empty stomach. In China, MSG is a ubiquitous seasoning without any stigma attached, and it has earned a place in the kitchen of most homes and restaurants right next to the salt and the chili.

Although MSG was only created in 1908, the bond between Chinese cuisine and MSG goes back farther than that. What is sometimes called “the fifth taste,” (clearly named such by a Western palate unfamiliar with chili)  is actually a group of compounds which include glutamates, like MSG, but also inosinates and guanylates. These “fifth taste” molecules occur during the breakdown of proteins in foods, such as the aging of a rich cheese, and also occur naturally in many ingredients long used in Chinese cuisine; like Yunnan ham, dried scallops, and shiitake mushrooms. For a talented chef, using these ingredients correctly could create the same mysterious fabulous flavor given off by MSG.

Todays use of MSG in homes and restaurants is like a short cut, or maybe an improved way of releasing the “flavor spirit” of this fifth taste that  has seasoned Chinese food since long before MSG. Used correctly- in moderation, and in the right dishes, MSG really can elevate the flavor of a dish, and maybe its time for MSG nay-sayers to do a little soul searching into the source of their hatred for such a helpful little compound.

To be fair, there has been much scientific research in the west pointing out a link between obesity and MSG. MSG is a known excitotoxin, a substance that can overexcite neurons, resulting in cell damage or even death. In studies performed on rats, MSG “creates a lesion in the hypothalamus that correlates with abnormal development, including obesity, short stature, and sexual reproduction problems.” (2)

This does sound rather frightening, and although I am not a scientist, I am also not a rat. I believe there is a much large study that should be done on a group much more suitable than lab rats. Its called: Asia. Asian countries consume MSG voraciously, and although may be somewhat shorter in stature, I don’t think its because of the MSG, and the Asian continent does not share the rampant obesity problem found in the West.

In fact, MSG is proving itself rather beneficial in some situations- in Indonesia, the additive is being fortified with Vitamin A to help reduce incidences of Xerophthalmia, an eye disease that causes blindness in children.

So perhaps, with regards to Chinese cuisine, its time to look at MSG in a new light, and, in a country not big on religion, come to see why its citizens worship the flavor spirit.




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