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Monosodium Glutamate/MSG: The Topic


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I think I have read somewhere that tryptophan can cause the drowsies that mizducky remembers. I know that the after-Thanksgiving dinner naps after eating a lot of turkey is blamed on turkey being high in tryptophan. Perhaps some of the ingredients in typical Chinese dishes are particularly high in tryptophan.

That's a myth. There's plenty of tryptophan in lots of "common" foods, and turkey isn't so much crazily higher in tryptophan that it would really make a difference. Eating a load of white starch, on the other hand.

And about MSG in "non-traditional" foods:

I've found MSG to be really out-of-place in some foods. Combining it with many Indian flavors yields unpleasant results (as I've found when frantically trying to make a boring spice job more exciting). MSG really provides a lot of extra meatiness to stocks, but I went overboard the other day when doing a gumbo and the stuff had a slightly "too-intense" flavor.

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What is probably just as likely as anything to have caused the headaches I have two theories on:

One is simple hydration. I'm not sure what the time frame we're looking at, but dehydration can cause headaches, and so can overhydration. The movement of water and salt with the digestion of these foods which are not normally in the people's diet can cause this.

The other is if these people are used to having some form of caffeine over their lunch and aren't with the chinese, then they might get a withdrawal headache.

I always attempt to have the ratio of my intelligence to weight ratio be greater than one. But, I am from the midwest. I am sure you can now understand my life's conundrum.

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I think I have read somewhere that tryptophan can cause the drowsies that mizducky remembers. I know that the after-Thanksgiving dinner naps after eating a lot of turkey is blamed on turkey being high in tryptophan. Perhaps some of the ingredients in typical Chinese dishes are particularly high in tryptophan.

If I remember correctly, the amount of turkey that was purported to give that much tryptophan was on the order of 10 ounces which should be enough of a bolus to cause post-prandial-depression (sleepiness after eating) in nearly anyone. That's a lotta fowl to satiate you.

I always attempt to have the ratio of my intelligence to weight ratio be greater than one. But, I am from the midwest. I am sure you can now understand my life's conundrum.

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[...]The other is if these people are used to having some form of caffeine over their lunch and aren't with the chinese, then they might get a withdrawal headache.

I usually drink a few cups of tea with meals in Chinese restaurants, so I'm not understanding the concept of a caffeine withdrawal headache in relation to such a meal, except inasmuch as some non-Asians prefer to drink ice water rather than tea, for some reason. :biggrin:

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I read somewhere that they add MSG to toothpaste. Now why in the world would they do that? It's not like you're going to want to use more toothpaste just because it tastes better (if, in fact, it really does).

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  • 3 months later...

Thanks for posting a very interesting article. MSG has been a subject of debate for years in our household so this article will rekindle a discussion which has just been waiting for fuel!

"Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." TMJ Jr. R.I.P.

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Of all the things of which I have been accused, no-one has ever been foolish enough to refer to me as "a man of few words". So stating (and offered as an apology), my own thoughts about MSG.

====

I have never attempted to hide the fact that my curiosity and appetite are often triggered when I hear about the opening of a new restaurant or discover a new source for smoked oysters, a spicy new goats' cheese or even a fine loaf of bread. On the other hand, I never become gastronomically stimulated when people start talking about diglycerides, dipotassium phosphate, polysorbates or monosodium glutamate, all of which are among the most common food additives used throughout the world. Because I know that most of the things added to our foods will not harm us if used in moderate amounts, such additives do not frighten me. Because they are almost invariably used to make mediocre foods taste better, they merely offend me.

What does occasionally amuse me are the heated and frequently - uninformed debates that focus on the use of such additives. No substance today is undergoing a more international debate than monosodium glutamate. The United States has one group so emotionally involved with the subject that its members occasionally threaten to burn down factories that add monosodium glutamate to their soups or other products. In England, two self-professed "food activists" recently threatened to pour petrol on their bodies and burn themselves to death if their supermarket continued to buy products that contained it. In Germany, one of the most vocal and powerful "political movements" is the one attempting to ban its use. More than this, monosodium glutamate has been the subject of debates in the United States Senate, the English House of Commons, and the French National Assembly. Possibly taking advantage of this controversy, here as abroad, as if they are trying to convince us that their products are better for our health, several major food producers have started boasting, sometimes in bold letters on their packages and in their advertisements, that their tinned, frozen and powdered soups, stews and quiches are free of monosodium glutamate.

I have been hearing so much about monosodium glutamate lately that I decided to do some serious research into the matter. On my desk, in addition to 28 research reports from sources as highly respected as "The New England Journal of Medicine", "Lancet", the "Journal of Epidemeology", "The Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology", and the "American Journal of Dermatology", are reports from the United States Department of Health and the World Health Organization. The simple overwhelming truth of the matter is that there is no evidence whatever that when consumed in anything but the most outrageous quantities, monosodium glutamate is harmful to adults.

It surprises many to realize that monosodium glutamate is an amino acid that is found naturally in virtually all proteins and thus in all meats, poultry, fish, cheese, cow's milk, human milk, legumes, mushrooms, tomatoes, and many other vegetables. The first people to discover the use of this material to enhance the tastes of their foods were the Chinese and Japanese who, more than 1,500 years ago learned that foods cooked in a fish stock made from the seaweed "Laminaria Japonica" tasted good. Since that discovery, monosodium glutamate has been the most popular additive to foods in the Far East. It was only in 1908 that a Japanese investigator, Kikunae Ikedo succeeded in separating out and actually identifying the material we now know as monosodium glutamate from the seaweed.

Monosodium glutamate came to the attention of Americans only when the Second World War had ended. After they had occupied Japan, the United States Army launched a massive research program to try and determine how Japanese soldiers, who were often badly undernourished, had succeeded in maintaining remarkably high levels of energy during the war. Based on badly collected, inaccurate data and a total ignoral of all psychological and cultural factors, the researchers mistakenly concluded that the high levels of energy were due entirely to the use of monosodium glutamate in the Japanese diet. Americans went mad with this new "knowledge", and before long, had become convinced that in addition to giving them more energy, monosodium glutamate would make them more intelligent, improve their memory, make them more fertile and even add to their life-span. Under the name of "Accent", jars of monosodium glutamate were placed next to the salt and pepper shakers in nearly every household in America. Europeans also caught this mania, and even today, small containers of "Aromat", the French version of the same material, are found on the tables of many French homes as well as in many neighborhood cafes and bistros.

The monosodium glutamate garden of eden collapsed in 1968 when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to "The New England Journal of Medicine". In his letter, he reported a strange set of symptoms that occurred whenever he ate in a Chinese restaurant. He described the experience as one of numbness beginning at the back of the neck, radiating to the arms and back, and accompanied by weakness and palpitations. More than this, he suggested that these symptoms were caused by some component of the cooking wine, the high salt content of northern Chinese food or the monosodium glutamate that was used. The letter triggered a deluge of similar anecdotes and before long researchers had focused in on a study of monosodium glutamate, which was by now being blamed for a variety of problems. It took less than a year until the whole world knew about the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome", which was described as a complex of symptoms consisting of feelings of burning or warmth, pressure or tightness and numbness or tingling of the face, neck, upper chest, shoulders and upper arms, sometimes accompanied by chest pain.

During the following decade, a host of research reports seemed to support the notion that monosodium glutamate was really bad for us. What very few people seemed to notice was that a great many of these studies were inadequately designed, some actually forcing bias on the participants, others injecting outrageous amounts of monosodium glutamate directly into the blood stream of laboratory animals, and yet others that relied only on anecdotes. Americans chose to ignore the reality that a meal consisting of a large steak, two medium tomatoes, a large baked potato with sour cream and a portion of ice cream contained far more naturally occurring monosodium glutamate than they would find in a meal in nearly any Chinese restaurant. So far did the hysteria go, that many Americans became convinced that monosodium glutamate was a "man made substance" when it was in fact produced primarily by fermenting cereal starch, molasses, sugar beets or sugar cane.

The hysteria continued even though since 1979, no serious research studies have shown any correlation between monosodium glutamate and the symptoms usually associated with Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. In fact, according to a study carried out by physiologist R.A. Kenney in 1978 and 1980, a higher percentage of the population report the same symptoms when they consume frozen orange juice, tomato juice or cold black coffee than when consuming foods to which even high concentrations of monosodium glutamate had been added.

According to a detailed study carried out in 1993 by chemical toxicologists L. Tarsoff and M.F. Kelley, so-called "restaurant syndromes" can be caused by a wide variety of food components and additives. In addition to overeating, among the most "guilty" factors are the natural allergens such as those found in sea food, fish, peanuts, walnuts, or eggs; in preservatives such as sulfites, sulfates, sorbates, benzoates, and nitrites; in food colorings such as tartrazine or carrotine; or in the general use of excessive salt. Where monosodium glutamate was once mistakenly perceived as a "miracle additive", it has now become the scapegoat for a variety of food-related complaints.

The fact that not everyone became part of this anti-monosodium glutamate hysteria, is demonstrated by the fact that even though there are limitations on the amount that may be used in different food products, no government in the world has forbidden its use. Dr. Avraham Reshef, head of the Department of Nutrition at Israel's Department of Health, reports that because it is not considered "a dangerous substance" there are no restrictions on its use in Israel. Professor Michael Na'em, Director of the School of Nutrition of the Faculty of Agriculture of Hebrew University in Jerusalem agrees that it is safe, even though he concurs with other researchers that as with many other additives he would not like to see it used in excess of the limits suggested by the Food and Drug Administration of the U.S. Department of Health. More than this, Professor Na'eem agrees with Professor Shmuel Yanai of the Department of Food Engineering and Food Technology at Haifa's Technion, nutritionist Dr. Niva Shapira and chief nutritionist Olga Raz of a major Tel Aviv hospital, all of whom concur that restrictions should be applied to the addition of monosodium glutamate in the food of infants of up to 2 years of age.

Professor Na'em suggests that the because the gastro-intestinal tract in neonates and infants may be immature, high levels of monosodium glutamate may reach the brain. Professor Yanai goes even further in suggesting the possibility (and, as he points out, "it is only a possibility") that this immaturity may have an effect on the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, the visual retina in the eye and on the production of other hormones. Because of this, all of those interviewed agreed with Dr. Niva Shapira's statement that "there is no justification for adding monosodium glutamate to the foods of infants". Some even suggest that until more accurate data is collected it be eliminated from the diet of all children.

As to the question of allergy, the research reports I have examined and those people I interviewed are in general agreement that only between 0.2% and 0.5% of the adult population shows any sign of allergy to monosodium glutamate and all agree that there is no medical reason to limit its use with adults. Not even the sodium in monosodium glutamate can be blamed for problems for ordinary table salt contains 65% more sodium than that in monosodium glutamate.

A Food Lover's Objections

Even acknowledging that monosodium glutamate is not harmful to adults, I continue to have two objections to its use as an additive in my food. My first objection is that instead of fulfilling the claim that it enhances, compliments or "wakes up" the original flavor of foods (as do thyme, oregano and rosemary, none of which I object to when used properly), monosodium glutamate makes everything, from the most mediocre soup powder to the most exquisite oysters taste the same. In fact, it gives nearly everything the ubiquitous taste of chicken soup.

Ever since the days of Plato, scientists have more or less accepted the fact that there were only four basic tastes - salt, sweet, sour and bitter. Several years ago, researchers in Japan became extremely excited and reported that they had discovered a fifth taste - "umami ". Today, although many scientists in the western world are convinced that umami is indeed a unique taste, others deny this. So controversial is the subject that some highly respected scientists refuse to even discuss it, claiming that even the merest mention of umami would be to give credit to a non-existent phenomenon.

Many researchers now conclude that monosodium glutamate is the material most responsible for the taste now known as umami, explaining that two basic chemical groups share the responsibility for producing the taste of umami. The first (of which monosodium glutamate is an example) are created by groups of l-amino acids and the second is a group of ribonucleotides. Many researchers have found that the materials in these two groups cause the umami taste sensation in humans as well as in animal laboratory animals. Even though many feel that the evidence for the phenomenon of umami is conclusive, that there are researchers, especially in the Western world, who perceive umami (like monosodium glutamate) not as a unique taste but as a combination of already recognized tastes, especially those of sweet and salty.

When asked to describe the taste of umami, several of the researchers with whom I spoke observed, as I had that it reminds one very much of chicken soup". Personally, I have no objection whatever to chicken soup. I would even go as far as to say that I adore good chicken soup which, even though it has its variations, is a universal that will be found in the homes of Jewish, Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Moslem families the world over. My problem is that I do not want my next grilled steak, boiled lobster or baked spinach quiche to taste like chicken soup and this is what the addition of umami (or, if one prefers, monosodium glutamate) does. To support this feeling, one need only refer to Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Anton Mosimann, Alice Waters and Guy Savoy, five of the most respected chefs of the world, each of whom refuses to allow monosodium glutamate into their kitchens.

My second objection is that the major use of monosodium glutamate, which is often found in commercially prepared soups and a large variety of frozen and tinned foods, is to make mediocre foods taste better. I acknowledge that it is economically viable for companies that are providing basic food products to the people of starving nations to add monosodium glutamate to foods that might otherwise have little taste appeal. This is not, in my opinion, a valid reason to add it to the so-called prestigious food items that are being promoted in our supermarkets and expensive specialty shops. The claim that monosodium glutamate can "add to nature" is little more than a bad joke. It is used most often to hide the fact that the prepared foods being sold to us are often so over-processed and so commercial in nature that they have nearly nothing left in common with the real thing. Fresh young garden carrots, fine lamb chops with just the right amount of fat or a fresh trout that has been cooked on a grill need no additions to make them delicious.

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An interesting article about MSG.

[On another note, I recently found a website that complained that MSG was responsible for gross obesity in that it made food irresistably delicious.]

Remember how fashionable it became--sometime in the 80s--for Chinese delivery chop shops to post the international symbol for NO MSG on their menus. In fact they needed every bit of help they could get, especially from the cheap afterburner effect (ramen speed?) of Gourmet Powder.

Now I demand it by name.

from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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Hi,

Excellent piece by Mr. Rogov. Thank you very much for your insights.

As you have clearly stated (and from my own research), there really is no conclusive evidence that MSG causes the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome". However, it is hard to ignore so many anecdotal reports in which it is so easy to take at face value.

Scientific facts (or factoids) need vigorous testing under controlled conditions in order to prove anything. The problem is that it becomes too easy to quote the evidence that supports one's position i.e. the anti-MSG camp, without critically looking at the quality of the studies.

While I am not saying people aren't intelligent enough to discern between a bad study versus a good one, but most of the general population do not have the training and education to critically review scientific literature/trials. For example, if I were not an accountant, would you expect me to be trained to interpret the subtleties of the tax code? Hence you get many reports that are taken out of context (see yahoo health or many other health related websites for examples of such).

Your mention of the anti-MSG extremist's actions are in fact quite amusing, really.

I don't deny the fact that some people may react to MSG, but perhaps they would have the same reaction to red wine or oysters or parmesian cheese. Is "artificial" MSG as evil as it has been portrayed? Perhaps not.

I agree with you in that MSG simply makes mediocre food taste better, and I think forcing some chinese restaurants to display a no-msg sign forces them to pay a little more attention to their cooking in order to make their dishes more flavorful. Perhaps not such a bad thing.

Philosophically, I would personally not use MSG in my kitchen because that's akin to taking a shortcut.... much like dumping loads of butter into a sauce to make it taste nicer. No doubt it works in selected cases, but I won't do that to my dinner guests. But it's not because of health reasons.......

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There's a Web site dedicated to battling the myth. The discussion forum is particularly interesting.

Drink!

I refuse to spend my life worrying about what I eat. There is no pleasure worth forgoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward. --John Mortimera

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However, it is hard to ignore so many anecdotal reports in which it is so easy to take at face value.

Whether it's MSG or not, after eating at some Asian restaurants or consuming instant noodles I need to schedule a nap. I eat less of these foods now, but do indulge once in awhile only to suffer after. It's happened too many times now to ignore it.

As for whether or not Asians suffer more headaches because of the MSG they eat, have you ever visited a drug store in Japan? I surely hope the amount of remedies they sell is not related to their health.

"One chocolate truffle is more satisfying than a dozen artificially flavored dessert cakes." Darra Goldstein, Gastronomica Journal, Spring 2005 Edition

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  • 9 months later...

MSG is not just for Chinese and junk food. It's a staple of the southern spice cabinet as well (which I was surprised to learn, I admit).

A few years ago, my husband and I were traveling through Kentucky and we stayed at the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg--famed for their yellow-legged fried chicken and country ham. The food was awesome. It was a true southern fried, gravy ladened feast, so I bought their cookbook. MSG everywhere!

Next, we went on to Lexington. I was perusing the museum gift shop at the Henry Clay House and came across the Lexington Garden Club Cookbook called "Bluegrass Winners" (I highly recommend for large party dishes and brunch food and potato chip cookies), and more MSG!

Now I have gotten headaches after eating cheap Chinese food, but I cannot recall a single headache down in Kentucky. Perhaps it is not MSG, but a not so fresh shrimp that slipped in.

S. Cue

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So what is the cause of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? Or is it too complex to devise accurate scientific studies for?

I'm surprised no one mentioned Steingarten's article titled soemthing along the lines of "Why doesn't everyone in china have a Headache?". It is published in his second essay book, "It must've been something I ate" and it is amusing and very thorough.

In it he discussed how every restaurant kitchen in China that he visited had a big tub of MSG as part of their mise en place. That includes neighborhood joints as well as fancy fine places. He even asked several Chinese people after they had their lunch if they have any headaches. None did, so not EVERYONE suffers from the so called CRS :smile:

He also went on to explain that Glutamates (the supposed BAD part in MSG) are in all savory good stuff we like including tomatoes (why we love fries and ketchup) and a lot in cheese (who doesn't love cheese). So it is not Chinese food that has it or that is causing all the problem. See Jason's note above and he is right, processed and fast food (KFC anyone) use lots of MSG as well. They just do not have the bad rap that Chinese restaurants do, my guess is because they have better PR groups.

That brings me back to the dreaded CRS. Steingarten's conclusion was that CRS is related to BAD Chinese food served a couple of decades ago, especially the BAd soup they try to serve you as a first course and call it wonton soup. That was nothing more than salty broth chuck full of MSG. Americans had a couple of bowls of that and then moved on to the rest of the meal. By the end of their dinner, they were sleepy, with a headache and blamed it on Chinese food. Today, with so much more and far better ethnic restaurants available, including Chinese, CRS is nothing but a myth.

I know I've never gotten a headache after eating Chinese food.

My belief, some people are sensitive to glutamates. period. Especially those, like my wife who get migrains. In that case it is not "Chinese food" but anything that has glutamates that can cause a problem. This includes red wine, cheese, red fine beef, chocolate.....My wife still eats all of those (who wants to live without chocolate anyways) and she rarely gets a migrain, but if she feels one might be coming after a stressful work day, she tries to avoid pizza for dinner.

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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MSG rules. Everyone who says they don't like it is really deluding themselves, especially if they eat any kind of processed snacks or junk food. Face it people, you LOVE the stuff.

Damn skippy, I actually buy it by the bag!

So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And he says, "Oh, uh, there won't be any money. But when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness."

So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

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So what is the cause of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? Or is it too complex to devise accurate scientific studies for?

I'm surprised no one mentioned Steingarten's article titled soemthing along the lines of "Why doesn't everyone in china have a Headache?". It is published in his second essay book, "It must've been something I ate" and it is amusing and very thorough.

If I'm not mistaken, that is the article that ran in The Observer on 7/10/2005 that was linked from the very first post on this topic: "If MSG is so bad for you, then why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?"

Love the dry wit of the writing in the article--classic British style:

Babies have very basic taste buds: it's believed that mother's milk offers two taste enhancements - sugar (as lactose) and umami (as glutamate) in the hope that one or other will get the little blighters drinking. Which means mothers' milk and a packet of cheese'n'onion crisps have rather more in common than you'd think.

Amidst all this talk about "Chinese restaurant syndrome," this passage in Daniel Rogov's article brought to my mind another "syndrome" -- or, more accurately, "effect":

Monosodium glutamate came to the attention of Americans only when the Second World War had ended. After they had occupied Japan, the United States Army launched a massive research program to try and determine how Japanese soldiers, who were often badly undernourished, had succeeded in maintaining remarkably high levels of energy during the war. Based on badly collected, inaccurate data and a total ignoral of all psychological and cultural factors, the researchers mistakenly concluded that the high levels of energy were due entirely to the use of monosodium glutamate in the Japanese diet. Americans went mad with this new "knowledge", and before long, had become convinced that in addition to giving them more energy, monosodium glutamate would make them more intelligent, improve their memory, make them more fertile and even add to their life-span. Under the name of "Accent", jars of monosodium glutamate were placed next to the salt and pepper shakers in nearly every household in America. Europeans also caught this mania, and even today, small containers of "Aromat", the French version of the same material, are found on the tables of many French homes as well as in many neighborhood cafes and bistros.

I assume that most of you are familiar with something called "the Hawthorne effect."

This takes its name from a series of experiments on worker productivity conducted at the Hawthorne, Ill., plant of Western Electric (the old equipment-manufacturing arm of AT&T). The researchers were trying to determine which improvements to the workplace environment produced the greatest improvement in workers' productivity.

They installed brighter lighting, and productivity went up. They installed more comfortable seats, and productivity went up by a similar amount. They instituted more work breaks, and productivity went up. They reduced the lighting level, and productivity went up. They eliminated the work breaks, and productivity rose.

Finally, they concluded that the mere fact that the workers were being observed for their productivity made them more productive, regardless what else was happening.

A lot of bad science seems to rest on similar effects, and the example Rogov gives above, IMO, falls into this category.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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MSG also naturally occurs in several types of vegetables including mushrooms, also seaweed.

Well, I guess that explains why my roomie always asks me to put lots of mushrooms into the meat sauce I make when I fix lasagna.

I still think that the cheese mixture I used in last night's batch might have benefited from an extra bit of MSG, a jar of which (generic, not branded, obtained from the Spice Corner in the Italian Market) resides in my spice cabinet. It seemed a little on the bland side and not savory enough.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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I still think that the cheese mixture I used in last night's batch might have benefited from an extra bit of MSG, a jar of which (generic, not branded, obtained from the Spice Corner in the Italian Market) resides in my spice cabinet. It seemed a little on the bland side and not savory enough.

Parmigiano-Reggiano contains a ton of glutamates. Just add more of that.

Edited by Jason Perlow (log)

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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