Monosodium glutmate (MSG) is international. Full stop. (It’s not just in “Chinese food,” or exclusive to any other national or regional cuisine.) Let’s take a trip back 100+ years.
Once upon a time, in a faraway land, monosodium glutamate (MSG) was invented by a great and wise man, a father of Japanese protein chemistry. His name was Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. (My auto-correct just turned “Ikeda” into “Ikea.” Touché.) Ikeda traveled the globe conferring with the great chemists of the day, and brought their knowledge back home, to make it Japanese. Ikeda had a dream, a dream to help make a modern Japan great, to make its people strong, and to help its citizens eat more healthy foods. One day Ikeda was eating his wife’s soup, and he had a breakthrough! There was something special, something delicious–something distinctly Japanese in the flavour he was tasting. It wasn’t just sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. It was something else. Ikeda ran to the lab and toiled day and night to isolate the chemical responsible. At last, he stumbled on the cause: it was glutamate! Monosodium glutamate was its stabilized, salt crystal form. Ikeda took his invention and with a great entrepreneur, Saburosuke Suzuki, grew the Ajinomoto company–whose name translates to “the essence of flavour.” Ajinomoto brought delicious flavour to foods the world around. It made kids want to eat broccoli! Military rations less disgusting! Troops happier, wars more successful! Housewives more creative, more efficient! And everyone ate more happily ever after.
This would be the first chapter of my dissertation, if I were working for Walt Disney.
As it is, this mythic tale of discovery is recounted on the corporate website of Ajinomoto Group, Incorporated, today’s largest producer of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and leading force in amino acid products. (Click the link to watch their historical docudrama!) This story is also thickened in a succinct and insightful analysis by Japan historian Jordan Sand.
But my dissertation tells me, like any adolescent worth their salt, it’s so over tales of great men in distant lands. It argues that close and far are relative terms, and insists that I own my position, which is that of a white woman writing in Canada about a food additive that, in Canadian and American societies, is known most frequently as something “Asian.” Something to do with Chinese food. And being bad for you. Or, for more up-to-date foodies, as a retro-hip, cosmopolitan table-top seasoning that makes stuff taste awesome. Like your fusion noodle bowl. (Who doesn’t like fusion noodle bowls?)
In actual fact, my first chapter is a history about exchange across borders. It’s about a historical moment (the late-19th century) of unprecedented international collaboration and inspiration, in spite of–as well as because of–this being an era when the sun never set on the British empire. The ‘unequal treaties’ of 1858 had forcibly opened Japan to trade on terms favourable to the Five Nations: the United States, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia. (Euro-American trade in Japan had previously been strictly curtailed by the Japanese government.) So, Ikeda indeed traveled to Germany in the 1880s, but his ambitions rolled out in the context of the reformist Meiji government (1868-1912) plans to make Japan an imperial presence to rival the vexing heavy-hitters from the West.
The acquisition of Western-style food customs, or what was called yoshoku, was central to the Meiji programme for bunmei kaika (“civilization and enlightenment”). Besides demonstrating mastery of European tableware, seating, manners, and dress, reform-minded Japanese elite made a point to display a palate expanded to accommodate Western staples like long-taboo meat, especially beef, as well as dairy products and wheat bread. While the avoidance of meat-eating in pre-Meiji Japanese culture has been attributed to long-held tenets of Buddhism and Shinto, Japan’s native religion, the stigma attached to consumption of land animals (beef, horse, dog, monkey, and chicken from late spring until early autumn) has also been attributed by leading Japanese dietary and food historians Harada Nobuo and Ishige Naomichi to fears of livestock depletion stemming as far back as the seventh century. Meat-eating was limited to the elite and to rare ritual events and medicinal applications. These practices prevented the adoption of everyday meat-eating by the peasant masses, who surely would decimate livestock if given free land-mammal roasting license. (For more on these arguments, see a great history on modern Japanese cuisine by Katarzyna Cwiertka.)
In the immediate lead-up to the Meiji period, many Japanese were conflicted about eating meat. The apparent large stature and technological prowess of the barbarian West had associated meat consumption with physical strength. But public establishments serving animal flesh were stigmatized–called momonjiya, or “beast restaurants”–and their dishes were known by euphemisms to help them go down. Sakura (cherry) = horsemeat, momiji (maple) = venison, and botan (peony) or yamakujira (mountain whale) = wild boar. In 1872, however, the Meiji government formally announced that the Emperor’s daily diet now included beef and mutton, and meat-eating among ‘progressive’ Japanese was officially in vogue. This trend, or gyunabe, marked an emerging ethos of modern urbanity: free-spirited, adaptive, and cosmopolitanism. In the words of playwright Kanagaki Robun in a 1871 satirical book of monologues, Aguranabe (“Sitting around the Stewpan”), “In the West, they’re free of superstition. There it’s the custom to do everything scientifically, and that’s why they’ve invented amazing things like the steamship and the steam engine.” Progressive urbanites in Japan began to eat according to Western science.
The discovery of MSG, then, was undertaken in an era when reformist Japan was hot for science and hot for animal protein. MSG was part of an international scientific fervour for unraveling the mystery of protein (as well as carbohydrate and fat) nutrition and flavour. (FYI: amino acids like glutamate are the building blocks of protein.) Ikeda’s scientific intervention was to declare a fifth taste sensation, umami (“savoury deliciousness”), whose existence was an evolutionary adaptation designed to incent us to consume protein sources (Ikeda 1909). And why should it not? After all, in turn-of-the-20th-century Japan, animal protein was the wave of the future. Animal protein was power. And animal protein was tasty. And if there wasn’t enough animal flesh to go around, well, at least Ajinomoto could make things taste meaty.
PS. No one worth knowing in the Euro-American scientific community believed Ikeda’s theory until a group of scientists based in Miami, U.S.A. published a study in 2000 identifying the sensory mechanism for umami taste perception. Why not seems to have been largely a product of global geopolitics and the hegemony of English-language scientific publishing. (But that’s my Chapter 5.)
**The words of Japanese playwright Kanagaki Robun in a 1871 satirical book of monologues, Aguranabe (‘Sitting around the Stewpan.’ In Katarzyna Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity (Reaktion Books Ltd.: London, 2006), 31.