Before MSG, There Was Garum

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We can thank the Italians for tagliatelle, prosciutto, and more recently, Eataly. But fermented fish sauce? Really?

As it turns out, the ancient Romans used garum much like we use ketchup on a burger today, to top products from open-air trattorias called thermopolia. Thought it’s not exactly certain when this practice started, Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino has found fish bones from a garum factory in Pompeii dating back to the days immediately preceding the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The process of preparing this ancient fish sauce is quite straightforward: place some fish guts under a thick layer of salt and herbs like coriander and leave it alone for 20 days. In that time, a delightfully smelly, fermented solid/liquid mixture is formed that will bring out that special something in everything from meat to pasta dishes. To answer how and why, however, we have to take a brief detour into the land of chemistry.

Back in 1908, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda wondered what gave dashi, the stock made from fish and kelp that commonly acts as a base in Japanese cuisine, its “meaty” flavor.  After isolating a certain compound that kept reappearing in a crystalline formation, he identified the chemical formula as C5H9NO4, or glutamic acid. He also created a name for a fifth sense, umami, based on the Japanese word for “delicious.” In the human body, glutamic acid is often found as glutamate, and Ikeda soon began to mass-produce an additive made by fermenting vegetable proteins. Thanks to him, we have monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Since then, MSG has gotten a bad rap and has been linked to physical ailments such as stomachaches and dizziness. There’s even a paper by food historian Ian Mosby called “That Won-Ton Soup Headache: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980.” The story of the rise and fall of MSG in the U.S. goes hand in hand with consumer sentiment about food additives. In World War II, the military-industrial complex added MSG to its rations to make flavorless food taste like something. But in the past few months, fast casual restaurants like Chipotle have responded to consumer demands by promising to eliminate artificial ingredients that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

At the same time, it seems like “natural glutamates” are enjoying the spotlight, from Umami Burger’s potent kombu and dried mushroom “umami dust” to a recent article in The Guardian featuring colatura di alici, an even saltier mixture of several fish-based sauces.

So, is MSG safe for you? I’m not a doctor, but it’s probably about as safe as eating fermented fish sauce preserved under a layer of volcanic ash. In any case, it’s one more time-tested ingredient adapted to the modern world, just like gruit and yak butter tea.

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