Picture this. A woman in her twenties bargains with a storekeeper and passes him a crisp Hundred Rupee note. The storekeeper looks to his right, and then to his left, before sliding a yellow pack into the woman’s shopping bag. A hundred rupees for a pack of Masala Maggi!
Welcome to the prohibition. It won’t be long before speakeasies serving up Maggi’s various ‘Mera Walla Taste’ recipes crop up in our cities. I’m imagining gangs dividing Bombay for Maggi bootlegging rights. Maggi seems to ignite serious emotions in people all over India and abroad. Over the past two months, people with no political or social affiliations are crying themselves hoarse about how the government has no right to take away their Maggi. Its strange that instant noodles gets people so riled up!
So, how did we get here? A few months ago, authorities at the seriously understaffed FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) found above normal traces of Lead and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in some Maggi packs in Uttar Pradesh. For decades, surveys of soil and water all around the country have yielded alarming stats on heavy metal levels. So news of excess Lead didn't really surprise anyone. Our food and water are already making sure we get a lot more lead than we need! But, no ones ever won a rational argument with a regulatory agency. Its also typical of India’s regulatory authorities to first turn a blind eye for decades and then go ballistic with the regulations. Excess Lead is terrible, but lets talk about something more interesting
The MSG issue brings to mind some interesting history and lots of good science. While Nestle stridently denied the presence of MSG in Maggi, they did admit to the addition of Glutamates to the 2-minute classic. So whats the big deal with MSG or even Glutamates. And whats it got to do with people being so darn addicted to their Masala flavoured Maggi?
As kids, we learnt about the 4 basic tastes - Salty, Sweet, Bitter and Sour. But it surprises many when you tell them that there’s a fifth taste our tongues are able to discern. Its called ‘Umami'. By adding Glutamates to their product, Nestle was just trying to suck up to our Umami taste buds!
In 1908, a Japanese chemistry professor, Kikunae Ikeda was out for dinner with his family. His cucumber soup tasted a lot better than usual. He realised that the addition of kelp (a seaweed) was responsible for the difference in flavour. After an investigation, he concluded that the tastiness came from ‘savouriness’ present in certain foods like seafood. Such foods are able to ignite taste buds in ways that really make people fall in love with the flavours and tastes. He coined the phrase Umami. In his native Japanese, umai meant delicious and mi was essence.
Ikeda said, "Those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavour of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter..."
But it was not until 1985 that the scientific community embraced Savouriness or Umami as an ‘official’ taste. This only confirmed what the master chefs of the Far East knew all along. But now we had good old fashioned science to back up the theory.
So whats the chemistry of Umami?
The real source for the Umami is the amino acid L-glutamate. Umami is the feeling we experience when receptors in our tongue meet the glutamate in food. The taste and aroma of these broken down ‘natural food chemicals’ is what lends the deliciousness that lots of wonderful foods from the East yield. Just how sweet is perceived as the taste of carbohydrates, umami is perceived as the taste of proteins.
Umami is like a savoury, broth like, full-flavour taste. It helps intensify the taste of salt and sweet, and balances bitter and sour flavours. Chefs had instinctively known that there was something extra that made their food tasty. Umami helped explain a lot that was vague about "taste" until then.
The good news with Umami-rich food, is that amino acids are available in a free state, so they can be easily absorbed and used by our bodies. This is probably why foods like Chicken Soup (loaded with broken down protein chains) are so therapeutic when you are ill. Glutamate is crucial for a healthy metabolism and works like a neurotransmitter in our brain. So all in all, there’s more good than bad that can come from the pursuit of Umami.
There are lots of natural foods to get more Umami into your cooking. Foods that age (gracefully) like the cheeses - parmesan and gorgonzola, or roasted, fermented, ripened food are rich in Umami. Umami is also responsible for the incomparably complex, yet satisfying flavour of slow cooked food like soups and broths.
Other common sources that can easily be incorporated into daily cooking are ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, asparagus, sardines, clams, wine, beer, green tea, walnuts, soy, olives, sea weeds, corn, peas, chicken, and fermented foods like Miso, Worcestershire and soy sauce. So grab an Umami source and elevate your home cooking!
The experts love it!
In his wonderful book ‘Cooked’ food writer Michael Pollan wrote, "To work its magic, umami needs to be in the company of other ingredients. Just like salt, glutamate seems to italicise the taste of foods, but unlike salt, it doesn't have an instantly recognisable taste of its own.”
Slow cooking the wonderful natural sources of Umami seems like one sure shot way to unlock those flavours. When cooked on a slow, low heat, the long necklaces of proteins in these ingredients break down into their constituent amino acids like glutamic acid resulting in tastes that are delicious and memorable.
Chefs all around have praised the positives of slow, low heat cooking and the use of umami-rich ingredients.Umami brings a multi-layered flavour profile that’s often the difference between a hastily put together meal, and one thats taken time and energy to put together.
Are food companies just being lazy?
Kikunae Ikeda’s story has a great commercially successful ending. He patented processes to manufacture and sell Glutamate commercially as the flavour enhancer (wait for it…..) MSG! Since its invention, Restaurants and Cooks everywhere have used MSG in abundance to simulate the Umami effect on our taste buds.
Indians are monstrous snackers and its no surprise that savouriness is by default our single biggest weakness. Today MSG (or its cousins) are found in food in Restaurants and Fast Food outlets everywhere in India.
But MSG has received a lot of bad press over the years. The evidence that suggests that MSG is the work of the devil, is sketchy at best. The symptoms attributed to MSG-related allergies are too run-of-the-mill to hold up to any scientific studies. All studies now reflect, that UNLESS used in very large quantities, MSG is safe for human consumption. In fact, lots of smart people even believe that its ability to increase the perception of salt without adding table salt, is a great way to reduce salt intake across the board.
So in summary, its ok to use MSG in moderation. But its a lazy substitute when there are so many wonderful natural sources of Umami. While cooking, find ways to use naturally glutamate-rich vegetables like tomatoes or mushrooms. Use cheeses, fish and meat liberally. Even seaweed sometimes to simulate that ‘restaurant tastiness effect’.
2-Minutes of Silence for Maggi!
Through smart marketing (convincing the world that the Big B is an addict) and the right dose of Umami, Maggi has conquered the hearts and taste buds of Indians here and abroad. Lots of people were replacing most meals with the 2-minute classic. While the FSSAI’s move relied on poor science, and hubris, its unquestionable that 200 calories made mostly of Saturated Fat, Carbohydrates and almost 800 mg of Sodium isn’t what the Big B or anyone else really considers a wholesome meal. So lets all keep calm and switch over to smarter, healthier snacks. Also, lets not forget the Umami!
PS: 2 minutes of silence is probably in order for the lakhs of Maggi packs that Nestle had to destroy after paying Ambuja Cements 20 Crore Rupees for the task. Most people are thinking, ‘Damn, its worth so much more alive, than dead’
Keep it Real,
References and Further Reading