Making vegetarian food tastier; or

Cooking with the world’s most dangerous* additive; or

How I stopped worrying and learned to love MSG.

A few weeks ago, I heard Robert Krulwich on NPR talking about umami – the fifth taste. If you didn’t hear it, go to the link above. As always, Krulwich makes the story very engaging. He describes how the Greek philosopher Democritus hypothesized the existence of four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Everything you eat is made up of a combination of those four tastes (plus the 10,000 various smells your nose can sense).

He goes on to discuss the previously hypothesized, but recently confirmed, discovery of a fifth taste – umami. The taste of l-glutamate. The 200 year old discovery was finally confirmed with the identification of two different types of glutamate receptors on the tongue. Glutamate is common in meat and other protein-heavy foods, like certain cheeses.  I suspect that the glutamate receptors evolved for the same reason as our ability to detect the other tastes: to help us decide what we should and shouldn’t eat.  Sugar indicates a carbohydrate rich food, salt – salt (duh), sour – probably vitamin C, bitter – maybe something poisonous to avoid, and umami to detect protein rich foods.

That got me to thinking.  With the exception of certain foods, e.g., cheeses, vegetarian cooking doesn’t have much umami in it.  It may have plenty of protein, but the dishes often aren’t satisfying.  Perhaps the lack of umami means that the actual protein in the food doesn’t register on the tongue and so, over time, you feel as if you were lacking for the protein itself.

Some of my favorite vegetarian dishes have lots of cheese, particularly parmesan (e.g., hamburger bocca burger pie and barley with mushrooms).  Of course, I can’t add parmesan or soy sauce to everything.  So as an experiment, I bought some ‘Accent’ which is just a container of MSG.  It’s not something I would add to all dishes, but I’ve been experimenting with adding it to dishes that are supposed to be savory: split pea soup that doesn’t have ham, store bought stuffing that should be made with beef broth, etc.

So far, the experiment seems to be a success.  Used in the right dishes, adding MSG to certain foods seems to make them taste better.

Of course, there are reasons why I shouldn’t use MSG; but fortunately health is not one of them.  Numerous scientific studies have completely exonerated MSG from the anecdotal health scare from the 60s.  There are no ill effects observed from the consumption of moderated amounts of MSG.  After all, this is essentially the same compound as is found in meat and other natural glutamate sources.

My main concern for not relying on it too much is that it’s a cheat.  It’s not a big cheat.  It’s a little bit like adding vinegar or salt to something to improve it’s flavor.  However, it is a cheat.  Rather than using an artificial source of umami, I would prefer to find ways of using more ingredients that are naturally higher in umami.  But in the meantime, I’m definitely going to keep the MSG around.  It’s in a little container in the pantry, right next to the salt.  🙂

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