When I cook Thai food, occasionally it doesn't taste quite right. The herbs are bright and fresh, there is sourness from limes or vinegar, a soft sweetness from palm sugar, a bite of spice and salty fish sauce. But there's another note that's not there, and its absence is a muffled void, like a baseline I've forgotten to play. And this is because I do not cook with MSG.
I have a strange relationship with this ingredient. I can tolerate it just fine and don't mind MSG when it's used in moderation. But when it's used in abundance, food becomes almost astringently saline. Conversely, if it's not there at all you might think the kitchen isn't cooking very well. Much like Americans are used to watching steroidal athletes crush home runs, Asians are used to eating juiced food. And when it's all-natural, well, sometimes it just isn't as exciting.
The steroid comparison is apt. Only a few decades ago no one was using MSG in Thailand. But when I research recipes here, cooks can't do without it. I remember asking an old woman in Nong Khai to cook her pork and herb salad "the traditional way" for this story. She added water and MSG to a saucepan, and brought it to a boil. Then I asked her to do it my way, and she smiled sweetly and obliged.
In China, chefs used to slowly stew bones and herbs for stock, but now many drop a few spoons of "chicken powder" in a wok to make soup for noodles. MSG's shiny, cylindrical crystals are scattered across tabletops from Seoul to Singapore. They make their way into stir-fries, soups, condiments, snacks, and even desserts. But I'm tired of MSG, and I'm not going to use it in my restaurant.
My disdain for MSG is mostly ideological. It is not because my throat swells or I get migraines after I eat it or even that I don't like the taste. I know that glutamate is a naturally occurring compound found in fish sauce, tomatoes, potatoes, and Parmesan cheese. I know a Japanese scientist isolated this "fifth flavor" in 1909 and in doing so changed the way we eat, and the way we taste. But so did the Portuguese when they brought the chili with them to Asia from the Americas, and that worked out nicely.
What I don't like about MSG isn't what it does to me, it's what the ingredient has done to cooking. Just as steroids synthesize natural hormones to beef up muscle, or nitrate fertilizers allow farmers to grow food at incredible rates, MSG allows chefs to create depth and savor with less care and technique. In doing so, those chefs can become dependent on that ingredient, until it characterizes their cooking. Take it away and their food is hollow.
Monosodium glutamate does one thing really well: it imitates quality. And its widespread use is a symptom of the greater ills that plague our food supply. Watery vegetables and tasteless industrial chicken or farmed prawns are propped up by it. Restaurants should think more about sourcing and cooking good food and less about how to dress up the cheap, tasteless stuff they get from suppliers.
And that's my solution to the "missing ingredient" question. After long discussions with my chef, and other chefs like him who are trying promote traditional cooking methods in Thailand, I've decided not to use MSG. Instead, I'll spend more on ingredients, like free-range chickens and organic rice and artisanal soy and fish sauces. And in the end, I hope people will feel like they're getting more, and not less, from my kitchen.