[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Just what is so bad about MSG?

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Just what is so bad about MSG?

Up until not so long ago, I used to ask them to leave the monosodium glutamate out of my food whenever I ate in a restaurant here. The answer would always be a polite "Ne, ne," and then they'd go ahead and bring me my order loaded with MSG anyway, as usual. Having fought and lost this same battle in the restaurants of Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong as well, I finally gave up.

I found myself wondering why so many of us Westerners seem to dislike the stuff, while East Asians, at least most Koreans and Chinese I've talked to about it, consider it indispensable. Maybe we're just prejudiced because of its chemical-sounding name. Here in the East, people generally refer to it by one of its high-flown brand names, Ajinomoto or Miwon, both meaning "the source of flavor." But the nearest we Occidentals come to disguising its chem-lab appellation is the acronym MSG. Even that sounds more like something you'd hear in a Pentagon press conference ("Military Strategic Gobbledygook") than something you'd want to put on your food.

In other words, many of us are rejecting monosodium glutamate without giving it half a chance, merely because we don't like the sound of its name. Just think what it would be like if other seasonings or foods went by their chemical designations. I'll bet people would use a lot less salt if the shakers were labeled "sodium chloride." And picture this scene in a diner: You hold up your empty water glass and, motioning to the waitress, you call out, "Miss, could I have some more hydrogen oxide?" The people at the next table would probably think that either you were a terrorist about to blow the place up, or you didn't have time to make it to the beauty shop so you were bleaching your hair over lunch.

To be completely fair, we should examine the advantages of using monosodium glutamate. Once we understand how it benefits us, we'll be able to enjoy our sojourn in the Orient all the more without fretting about this ubiquitous additive every time we go out to eat.

First, MSG helps conserve precious foodstuffs, and it saves time, too. Monosodium glutamate has hardly any flavor of its own. It works by stimulating the taste buds, causing them to discover meaty flavors in the food even when little or no meat has been used. In fact, MSG will enhance the flavor of just about anything except eggs and candy, including vegetables and, believe it or not, tobacco.

The process of making seolleong-tang, a popular beef soup with rice and noodles in it, illustrates this point. In the bad old days, the cook had to boil soup bones for hours in order to make the stock for seolleong-tang. Now, she can just throw a couple of bones in the pot with a few handfuls of MSG and, voila, the soup's ready in an hour or so -- very handy for today's fast-food restaurants, and economical, too. Just imagine how this could be put to use in poorer third-world countries. Maybe MSG should be included in CARE packages.

Second, MSG helps keep marriages together. Nowadays many a young bride-to-be wastes her time attending schools of haute cuisine where she learns the secrets of the best Western cooking along with the strictly traditional ways of preparing Korean dishes. Then she regales her new husband with meal after meal of dishes made with choice ingredients, including special herbs and spices. Imagine her dismay when hubby complains about all the "peculiar flavors in the food" and wonders why she can't cook a meal "like the ones Mother used to make." In Korea we are already into our second or third generation of kids raised on MSG, so a meal "like the ones Mother used to make" means food with lots of MSG in it. And since MSG makes everything taste pretty much the same, you can't get away with sneaking in a real spice or herb now and then. Take my advice, brides-to-be. Stick to MSG.

Third, MSG has therapeutic properties. Did you know that it has been used in the treatment of psychosis, mental retardation, and hepatic coma? No wonder Asian kids score so well on math tests. No wonder haejang-guk (the soup Koreans swear by for hangovers) is saturated with MSG: It's the quickest way to get that comatose liver functioning again.

It seems quite clear that the advantages of using MSG far outweigh the across-the-board mediocrity of the taste of food made with it. So the next time you go out for lunch, don't let the cook's overuse of MSG drive you crazy. On the contrary, ask the waiter: "Could you have them throw an extra handful of MSG in my seolleong-tang? I'm feeling a bit psychotic today."

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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