2/22/08

味精
(MSG)


I've been reading (and cooking) from Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook since I got back to Beijing. The recipes are all from 湖南 (Hunan province) which is also Mao Tze Teng's hometown, and the writer goes into incredible depth with each dish, tying it all in to the history of late 20th century China. Real Cultural Revolution food is poverty food, along the lines of cucumber pickles, shredded radish, boiled tofu and fried seaweed. However, Dunlop mostly tackles fully traditional, hearty peasant dishes along with complex banquet food, making the recipes more reminiscent of quieter times and less placed within the historical context constraints that the title suggests. Included are even some of Mao's favorite recipes gathered from his own family.

Dunlop writes a little about the food additive MSG, mostly negatively. Monosodium glutimate is the chemical compound that produces umami, or richness, in food. This glutimate is naturally occuring in fermented foods, (parmesian cheese, miso, black bean paste) some meat, some vegetables seafood, mushrooms and sea vegetables. 50 years ago or so, chemical glutimates were developed by the Japanese and have since been added to snack foods, dashi, stir-fries and to disguise the taste of cheap food.

As we all are aware, MSG is now very present in Chinese food.

The main reason for this is because in traditional Chinese cooking stocks made from fish, seaweed, pork, chicken, beef, mushrooms, etc. are used commonly to flavor stirfries and soups with extra glutamate flavor. Villages without electricity or freezers would have to constantly keep stocks bubbling and simmering to prevent them from becoming rancid, so a cook became a slave to kitchen because of the need to constantly make and keep fresh stock. Also, if a family can't afford enough meat, there will not be enough bones for the stock. This means the other dishes suffer and won't have that umami taste. MSG is wonderful for those who cannot afford to keep stock. I heard a story told by a Chinese woman about how her mother would make boiled cabbage for lunch. They were too poor to afford real stock, so they had to just use well water. To make the simple, otherwise tasteless food palatable, the mother just added a dash of inexpensive MSG. To poor Chinese, 味精, or "flavor powder," is a miracle spice.

The negatives outweigh the positives. China's food is arguably the most complex and vast in the world, which anyone who's been to a supermarket in Beijing can agree with. You can study it for 10 years and find new dishes, ingredients and techniques everyday. This being said, traditional cooking methods have been threated for most of the late 20th century up until now. Pesticide ridden vegetables, antibiotic injected meat and processed foods are used in most restaurants and MSG is used as a cover-up in a more heinous way than a poor mother guising up her cabbage broth. I've had truly hideous food in this city, but I still believe in the potential of traditional Chinese cooking methods. Maybe I have to travel south to gain faith again.

1 comment:

loveyerma said...

...or open up your own restaurant and call it "Shiny Dollop!" or "Foo 4 U!"

Ha ha!!!

loveyerma