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.