Hawker Fare is a red-hot restaurant in San Francisco helmed by Thai-Laotian chef James Syhabout. His new collection of the restaurant’s most beloved recipes is well-worth a spot in your culinary library, so pick up a copy of Hawker Fare, heat up a wok and school yourself on the virtues (yes, virtues) of MSG. You’re going to need it.
Like a lot of other Asians, I was raised on it. It’s the taste of home-cooked meals, the flavor of restaurant cooking, the thing that made all those after-school bowls of Mee Mama ramen go down so good. I’m talking about MSG — monosodium glutamate — the soul of “authentic” Asian cooking. Fairy dust, I like to call it. Granted, MSG has a bad rap. Some say heavy amounts cause headaches and other feelings of discomfort. But then, heavy amounts of anything will make you feel like shit. Science says consuming MSG produces no ill effects, but the headache myths persist.
I hate to be the bearer of reality, but if you’ve ever traveled to Asia (especially Southeast Asia) and gone crazy over the food, ninety-nine times out of a hundred you slurped down MSG: that tasty bowl of noodles from the hawker stall, the delicious Hainanese chicken from that mom-and-pop shop. MSG is a major part of the culinary fabric of Asia. In Laos and Thailand, you couldn’t avoid it if you tried.
MSG exists naturally in foods we eat every day: nori, kombu, and all the sea vegetables; soy sauce; tomatoes and Parmesan (is it a co-incidence how much we all crave margherita pizzas and spaghetti with red sauce?). Our tongues register the natural compounds in MSG as the sixth flavor.
There are some health upsides to MSG. Since it amplifies flavor, seasoning with MSG lets you cut down on salt and still produce something delicious. At home I’ve tried reducing the salt in a dish and adding a sprinkling of MSG. I found it’s possible to reduce salt by almost half without sacrificing flavor. MSG creates a bridge on the palate between the various taste buds, harmonizing saline and acidic flavors, heightening nuance. It’s the zoom on your digital camera, a 10x magnifying glass.
Like any tool, MSG has its limits. It will not magically make bad food taste better — if what you’re cooking doesn’t taste good to start with, MSG will not save it. MSG will not tolerate abuse. Too much leaves an undesirable flavor. MSG is like salt, meaning you can add a sprinkle to whatever you’re cooking, anytime.
You’ll notice I’ve included MSG in many of the recipes in this book. You can leave it out (we don’t cook with it at Hawker Fare, to accommodate guests with aversions, though I wish we could). I encourage you to do your own tests: Make a dish with no MSG, then make the same dish with. I guarantee you’ll want to start cooking like an Asian mom. When you do, look for the Ajinomoto brand. It comes in bags of different sizes.