The MSG wars

For Christmas Eve 2013, I prepare a simple Austrian Christmas dish – sausages with sauerkraut and potatoes. While I’m in the kitchen looking for the right spices, I find pure MSG hidden behind other spices. I show it to my husband. He gets angry and starts a fight with his dad. They agreed that we won’t use MSG at home. We both think that MSG is unhealthy and  unnecessary, but his father thinks that food doesn’t have any taste without it. They argue for a while. My father in-law states that he has eaten MSG his whole life (I don’t know how that makes it any better and honestly, I can’t imagine that MSG was in use widely in China for the last 60 years, but feel free to prove me wrong). My husband is mad not just because of the MSG, but rather due to the fact that his father has hidden it so we won’t find it. Not only that, he thinks a father should be a good example for his kids and with his father being the first one in their family who said that MSG is unhealthy way in the past, buying MSG and hiding it from us is simply something my husband doesn’t approve of.

In the end, my husband says: “If you really cannot live without MSG, let me at least buy you the best MSG there is.” And he sits down before his computer to look for a Taiwanese brand that extracts MSG from plants. He buys a kilo of MSG – which would probably last for whole a year considering that neither I nor my husband would eat it.

When it’s time to eat dinner, I sit at the table with my in-laws, my husband sitting in front of the computer, with both his father and him not willing to eat at the same table.

I’m the only one who actually eats the Austrian dishes. My father in-law only eats things he’s used to and these dishes don’t fall into that category. So he sticks to rice and simply adds sauce to it. My mother in-law at least tries the dishes and eats a little sauerkraut with potatoes and rice.

When I lie in bed later that evening, my husband apologizes to me. He then eats dinner alone, helping me finish the sauerkraut and the sausages. He doesn’t like sauerkraut that much, but he eats it because he knows that this is a traditional Austrian Christmas dish and that he’ll probably come across it for many more Christmases to come.

His father doesn’t talk to him for 3 days. After that, things are back to normal. The only thing that’s seemingly out of the ordinary is a box with natural MSG lying untouched on the floor of our apartment.

On a side note: The Chinese translation for MSG is 味精 wèijīng. You can ask restaurants to prepare your meals without MSG, but oftentimes, they have already put it in some pre-prepared parts of the meal. We often ask restaurants to leave out MSG and chicken bouillon, which would be 鸡精 jījīng in Chinese.

Have you ever argued about similar things? I’d love to read your comments.

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29 thoughts on “The MSG wars

  1. My wife and her mother argued alot during the three month visit and it was nearly always about food. Mostly because her mother would always put ginger in it even though my wife hates it, furthermore in the beginning she never put any real spices in the food so everything tasted the same. (it changed after a cooking crash course by my wife).

    Anyways, my wife loves sauerkraut and according to her there are many similar versions of it in China. I had myself a try couple of years ago and it tasted pretty much similar to the German version 🙂

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      • I guess it depends then also on the area/ province. I think it was my wife or her mother who was surprised that even though we called it sauerkraut it was not as sour as many other version they had tried before

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      • The dongbeiren have awesome sauerkraut. There’s even dishes with potato, sauerkraut and beef or pork. That stuff has a very germanic feel to it.

        That’s imho the cool thing about Chinese cuisine. Every once in a while you discover a dish that tastes just like something you know from home. I remember we had some pasta dish in a traditional xibei restaurant somewhere in rural Shanxi and it tastes just like something from Italy.

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  2. MSG is derived from seaweed, and studies have shown that there is no evidence that MSG is unsafe for human consumption:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium_glutamate#Safety

    And I’m somewhat surprised that your husband doesn’t like sauerkraut, because as CrazyChineseFamily alluded to above it’s not all that different from the pickled/preserved cabbage that is common in Northeast China.

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    • Studies are often financed by corporations that have an interest in showing that something is not harmful, so I’d be careful about that. I’m just going with my own feeling here, which is that it’s not good for me. I always get really thirsty when I eat a meal with a lot of MSG, drinking a lot of water won’t help, so I’m avoiding it whenever possible. I don’t think that taking one single component of sth (be it seaweed or sth else) and eat it every day is very healthy – no matter the component.

      If you don’t add anything sweet like apples and sugar, Austrian sauerkraut is much more sour than the pickled vegetables they eat in NE China, that’s why he doesn’t like it that much.

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      • How does your husband feel about Austrian/German cuisine in general? I really want to try the roasted pork knuckle one of these days, because you just know it’s gonna taste good when it looks like this:

        And the head cheese is on my to-do list too. 🙂

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        • Haha. He likes the food here, but I think he likes my mum’s home cooked dishes more than eating out. He particularly likes breakfast here – he says there’s just so much different stuff you can eat. We’ll see what he thinks of Austrian food after having stayed here for a few months.

          I’ve never had head cheese, let me know how it tasted if you ever try it.

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    • It is also US-FDA approved with only a small note for individuals with asthma and that doesn’t mean anything to me. After working in the Pharmaceutical Industry that stop having any meaning to me.
      Glutamate is used by our brain and there are more glutamate responsive tissues in other areas of our system (heart, muscles). If you over stimulate you can have heart issues.
      And plenty more. That’s just a small example.

      Is difficult to know when food has MSG because the hide it in the labeling.

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  3. I know a lot of health-conscious people who don’t like MSG, but I’ve also read that it isn’t that bad. Just a diet fad or something more to it? Occasionally I try to avoid it when buying streetfood but usually I don’t worry about it much. I could be healthier though.

    May I ask why you don’t eat it?

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    • I try to avoid it because I always get really thirsty whenever I eat sth with lots of MSG in it and I just don’t feel like it’s doing me any good. Also, I’ve been told by different Chinese friends that it’s unhealthy (although these people are in the minority, it made me think). There are a lot of sources online that describe why it may be unhealthy, and others that say why it doesn’t harm your body, so I’m just going with my feeling here. I haven’t always avoided it (it’s impossible to avoid it when eating out in China), but there’s a general perception in Austria (or maybe Europe) that MSG (or any other kind of food additive) is unhealthy for you. They put it in a lot of stuff in Austria too, it’s just not as obvious. My husband has been trying to avoid it even before we met.

      After I got pregnant, I couldn’t eat out anymore. I couldn’t eat a simple bowl of noodle soup, just the thought of eating it at a restaurant I’ve been going to frequently before getting pregnant made me feel nauseous. I think this was connected to the MSG or chicken bouillon, because other than that I can’t think of much that is added to noodle soup which would make it so hard for me to eat (I didn’t have problems with eating homemade noodle soup).

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      • Uh… today I went to a Hunanese restaurant, I enjoyed the food but I’ve been thirsty all day, and with a dry feeling in my mouth even after brushing my teeth twice… is this MSG secondary effects? I never thought of that!

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        • It might be. I get really thirsty and a dry mouth if there’s MSG in the food. We’ve been eating at home most of the time after I got pregnant, but now that my husband is eating out again from time to time, he says his mouth will often feel really numb.

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      • good choice going with your feelings. After all, you have to feel good!
        I don’t know if MSG is good or bad. On the other hand it is known that the brain is quite powerful in make belief. The placebo effect is proven. They’ve also proven that people who believe they’re drunk act like drunks. Or maybe MSG IS really bad for us – but as long as you found a way to feel better, does it really matter?

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        • Well, there are studies that say that MSG doesn’t have any negative effects on our bodies and then there are studies that say that it does. I can only go with my feeling with this one. And yes, I do have a vivid imagination, but imagining the effects pure MSG put into foods in large quantities has on my body is not one of them.

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          • hah. good point. I too might be put a bit off if I see someone adding spoonfuls of the stuff to the dish I’m going to eat.

            Then again I try not to think how the average Chinese kitchen looks or operates on the inside. (I’m wary of places where kitchen staff all wear rubber boots – what are they doing???) I’m content if the food is good and doesn’t do anything bad to me.

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  4. I’m allergic to MSG (and so is my mom) – so I always grew up in a household where before buying sauces/food, we check for MSG hiding in the ingredient list.

    My husband didn’t know what MSG was – and it wasn’t after I got sick a couple of times – before he realized that one of his favorite spices was, in fact, MSG.
    I felt bad staying with his parents and other Japanese friends because some of the cooking (mainly curry) uses MSG, and it was close to impossible to explain that I’m actually allergic to it. Most of the time, especially when I’m visiting friends, I just have to suck it up, eat it, and feel sick for a couple of days after.

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  5. Wow, now that really is an MSG war! We’ve quibbled sometimes about MSG w/ John’s parents, but they seem to respect that we would prefer they didn’t put it in the food.

    Of course, I think my MIL sneaks it in from time to time in the kitchen. But then again, it’s hard to complain when someone else makes the meals (and they are mouth-wateringly delicious).

    We’re moving out soon anyhow, so the cooking will be back in my hands, mostly. Which is a good thing. 🙂

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    • I think that even if your mother-in-law makes the food, it would be considerate not to put MSG in it if you two eat the food and don’t like to eat MSG. Especially since you eat together quite often, it would be different if you’re invited to someone else’s home.

      My mother-in-law didn’t put MSG into the dishes that all of us were eating, but she would put it into the dishes only she and my father-in-law were eating.

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    • Chinese people get pretty old despite all the MSG and pollution and whatever goes on. Either they are really tough, or we westerners like to over dramatize (first world problems?). The real killer is smoking. Soon to be followed by a diabetes epidemic.

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  6. My husband’s whole family is luckily hip to the whole MSG-is-bad thing. His mother would never add that to her dishes intentionally. For that, I’m grateful. However, we did move out of the parents’ house and now mostly eat out. We never say “buyao weijing” at restaurants. It almost always slips my mind.

    I do have a memory of arguing with my husband and his parents at a restaurant about shark. We were eating at a noodle shop in Wanhua, an old district of Taipei where my mother in law grew up. Among our side dishes, was chopped shark meat. Now, there are numerous reasons that spring to mind why we should not eat shark- messing up the food chain in the ocean, for one.

    That, and I’d recently read up on fish to avoid eating if we want to avoid mercury poisoning. Turns out shark is one of the highest mercury containing fish in the sea. Citing my sources, I proclaimed my newfound knowledge to my husband, who in turn became bristly and irritated. He told me to be quiet because we’re eating and should enjoy our food and his dad needs to eat shark meat because it is soft (he had throat cancer several years ago, from which he’s now recovered. But it’s hard for him to swallow anything too tough or roughly textured).

    More reason to avoid additional toxicity by upping your blood mercury level! I remember getting distraught, upset and alienated from my husband for the rest of the evening. I mean, how could he knowingly consume shark meat- let his dad eat it- when it’s so toxic? He said something along the lines of “we don’t eat it every day, just sometimes.” Still, it accumulates in our blood over time and shark meat isn’t the only thing with mercury that we’re eating.

    That was a really frustrating experience. And awkward! Of course I didn’t want to disrupt a family meal, but I thought “I need to inform them!” Typical foreigner. Thankfully there hasn’t been any more shark meat in our lives since that day. Even the shark fin soup at wedding banquets tends to be fake recently.

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    • I know what you’re talking about. I once did the same with a coworker. She ordered fish and talked about how healthy fish is. I told her that certain fish contain high levels of mercury. She didn’t take it too well – I think it’s seen as being impolite to say bad things (even if it’s a fact) about food while you’re eating it.

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  7. How about adding seatbelts to the taxis? Or stop using tap water for making tea? getting the pollution level down to 4 times above the WHO recommended limit (that’s considered a good level by the government). How about checking where the water comes from in your water cooler – at home, at the office? Where does the meat come from? How many pesticides were used on your veggies? Is the organic farm you purchase from really organic? Is the soil contaminated? How about all that second hand smoke that is everywhere? And the first hand smoke that is almost everywhere. Also, how often are you changing your AC filters? Does your office do that or do they just blast pollution around? Ever worry about your co-workers who leave that window open, despite the 10 lane highway outside your office? Oh right… and then there’s MSG 😉

    Really, this is the wild east. MSG should be somewhere at the bottom of your priority list when considering your mortality and health. Then again, if you’re health conscious, you might ask yourself why are you here in China in the first place? 😉

    Really, I don’t give a damn about MSG. That’s not my paranoia. But heck, that damn second hand smoke sure is!

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      • then again, having a bucket of MSG in your kitchen is kind of weird. Although I know people in Europe who have those beef-bouillon cubes they throw into every dish for added taste. Or the Maggi abusers. I wonder how that compares? (but maybe these questions just show my absolute ignorance of the MSG topic).

        Also, if the food is bland, why not add soy sauce? Or bacon? The Chinese have so many awesome tricks on how to add a little taste to everything. It’s strange they have to resort to MSG.

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