MSG = Monosodium, Good Mate!

I was at a pizza & wine cookoff recently — me with a few bottles of my family wine versus my pal Craig, with his family wines, making pizzas in the wood-burning oven of my friend and Craig’s brother-in-law, Chris. Basically, dads showing off for their and their friends’ wives.

Somehow we got on the subject of foods-that-used-to-be-taboo-that-have-been-redeemed — perhaps we were talking about eggs from each of our backyard chickens. Maybe it was butter, I can’t remember. I said aloud, “They’ve even determined that MSG is harmless.” Chris looked surprised. “Really??” However, his mother-in-law — his wife Mary’s mom — who had also joined us, looked aghast.

“Oh no!” she said, “MSG is terrible. It gives me headaches and irregular heartbeat and flushed skin!!”

I didn’t follow up.

A few weeks ago, I was cooking a test dinner of a sample menu for a briefly-mentioned-in-my-last-post-restaurant-possibility with some shall-not-yet-be-mentioned celebrity dinner guests who would be involved. My potential-restaurant-partner quizzed the guests about what their favorite kind of chicken was, and one of them replied, “KFC.”

Now I will pause here briefly to say that anyone who has ever told you they don’t like KFC is lying to you. It is @#$%ING delicious. Why? Well, there are those 11 secret herbs and spices. There is also the pressure frying which keeps the meat tender and thoroughly cooked without overcooking the crust. But there is also a fair helping of MSG.

My MSG

The bad rap MSG got from the beginning was largely bogus. It’s simply a protein isolate attached to a sodium molecule. The bad rap also dates to the 1960s, when people reported experiencing strange symptoms after eating Chinese American food. In a famous article exploring “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the author proposed a number of possible suspects — huge quantities of sodium, equally heroic amounts of oil… or, a heretofore unknown substance called monosodium glutamate. It was the latter that captured the public imagination — especially after some well-meaning scientists injected pregnant mice with 30,000x the amount of MSG any human could possibly consume and discovered problems in the resulting offspring.

If you are afraid of MSG, consider that you likely consume half a gram of the stuff daily in the foods you eat. That’s not counting naturally occurring MSG, which is chemically the same as the additive, and found in foods from mushrooms to cheese to fish.

I wanted my guests to really like the chicken. So I purchased a bag of MSG.

I was a little ashamed as I brought my contraband to the check-out line. But then I remembered I was at the Japanese market, and the Japanese still dig MSG. They were the ones who brought it to the world! Anyway, in terms of my meal, it would not be the main component of the dishes I was making; rather, it would merely enhance the flavors of garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, spices and so forth. I used a very small pinch in my spice mixture, a bit in my brines, etc. How was it? Delicious — and a bit better than it would’ve been without. My celebrity guests were on board 100%.

And I am now onboard too. With MSG.

Don’t shame me, well-intentioned food extremist. I realize yours is a small, flavorless world in which your self-righteous indignity to my defense of the world’s most hated food additive will provide you a temporary sense of purpose. I give you that. With a side of kale.

Just give me a KFC thigh and wing, please. And some kung pao chicken on the side.

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The Japan Series — Imogen Dreams of Sushi

“Are we going to eat a lot of sushi in Japan?” my 7-year-old daughter, Imogen, asked before we left on our trip.

“You betcha,” I assured her.

“Just sushi!?” she clarified hopefully. And it was my sad duty to inform her that we would probably eat ramen and tempura and yakitori and other things as well.

Immy’s first sushi meal in Tokyo

In case you’re checking into this blog for the very first time, this is a theme that comes up with some regularity. That is, that Imogen loves sushi. She is an expensive date.

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The Japan Series — Salvation at the 7-11, Big Pig and More!

Our flight arrived in Japan around 3:30 p.m., which for us was 9:30 p.m. the previous evening. We left Los Angeles at 11 a.m., and flew 10 hours in daylight, although when we arrived in Japan it was the next day. On the flight, they served breakfast, lunch, and then breakfast again.

It was around 6:30 by the time we figured out how to take the trains into Tokyo and locate — on streets that do not have names — our Airbnb. We were hungry, although we weren’t sure if we were hungry for dinner or breakfast. I offered to go out and find some take-out while the family got settled, which suited everyone just fine.

Flynn and Willa at the Airbnb in Kanda

Tokyo, from a non-Japanese-speaking westerner’s perspective, is a bit confusing at first when it comes to food. There are many, many restaurants — our little pedestrian walking area of Kanda was chock full of them — but it is challenging to figure what many of them serve. You look into the dark restaurant, there are six seats, and bodies are hunched over plates of something. Many restaurants serve only one thing — eel, for example, which would not have gone over well with 3/5 of my family. The point being, that a jet-lagged gaijin fresh off the plane trying to find some quick, not-to-exotic takeout in a non-tourist neighborhood of Tokyo was not going to have an easy time of it. More

The Japan Series: An Ode to Ika

I always figured I could make a successful business helping the Japanese correct the English on their packaging and signage. That intuition was only reinforced on our recent trip to Japan, who’s sensational and rather wacky culinary culture I shall explore in a series of posts beginning with this one.

Squid cracker package

Helpful squid-centric Japanese observation #1: A good way to keep your kids from eating the rice crackers you brought back from Japan: Choose squid flavored. More

OMG! Omakase!

In Japan, “omakase” means “I’ll leave it to you,” or more precisely, “I trust you.” It’s a common phrase in fine sushi bars, when you put your meal in the hands of the chef and let him make you whatever he feels inspired to moment by moment.

“Kanpai!”

In Topanga, “omakase” means my pal Don Schneider shows up at my house at 10 a.m. to drop off seven or eight different seafoods for a sushi dinner that evening, before he and family leave for a month to Israel to visit an ailing mother. He trusts me. More

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