A specter is looming over German cuisine: the specter of monosodium glutamate.
Now, it’s not my intention to get into the usual thrash about whether MSG is bad for you or not. You’re you, and only you can answer that question. Me, I’m very reactive to the stuff and always have been. Further, I have high blood pressure (as might you: it has no symptoms, and a huge percentage of the population has it, undiagnosed), and the sodium in MSG sets it off. I managed to live through three weeks in Japan, eating it, most likely, three meals a day, seven days a week (except for the day I found an Indian restaurant near my hotel and decided that sounded like a good idea — although it, too, might have used MSG).
MSG, despite its fearsome-looking name, is a natural side-product of the fermentation of soy to make soy sauce, and a chemical which occurs naturally in seaweeds, most notably kelp, or what the Japanese call kombu, one of the two ingredients (the other is shaved bonito) used in making dashi, the broth at the basis of Japanese cuisine. It has traditional uses, and is at the center of the sensation (or fifth taste) called umami.
That’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is how it’s taken over German cuisine in the past 20 years. What’s really bothering me is that I’ve virtually stopped going to traditional German restaurants because I’m afraid I’ll wind up like I did after a goose ‘n’ gravy extravaganza in Leipzig one night, sweating and with my heart racing and unable to sleep. I’d eaten at the Thüringer Hof, one of Leipzig’s oldest and best-loved restaurants, around Christmas time, and was rewarded by a sleepless night and a thirst which wouldn’t quit.
We can blame the Swiss. Most notably Maggi and Knorr, the two chief purveyors of MSG to the German-speaking world. There was a time when even modest restaurants would spend the time making stocks and broths for their sauces and soups, because that’s how you made them. It was also a great way to use up bones and scraps left over from preparing the dishes that appeared on the menu. The chef would start the day by baking and boiling, and the pots would simmer while the rest of the stuff got prepped. But that took time, and it took skill. What Maggi and Knorr had to offer were instant sauces, powders and cubes which simulated the time-intensive stuff, and which were also uniformly seasoned so that you didn’t have good days and bad days with your stocks and broths. There were rubs you could put on your roasts so they were also perfectly seasoned. And every one of these products contains MSG. Every one.
But it’s not just there. Germany is famous for its endless variety of Wurst. Go check next time you buy some. The vast majority of what’s on offer, not only at your supermarket, but at specialty stores, is loaded with MSG. It’s right there on the packaging, either as Mononatrium Glutamat, Natrium Glutamat, Geschmackverstärker, or E 621. In a market, the government requires the proprietors to have a book at hand with all the ingredients in it, which’ll either be right there on the counter or available if you ask one of the people behind the counter (who’ll usually respond with exactly the kind of grace and concern you’d expect: “There’s nothing wrong with our Wurst! We’ve been selling it for years!”). You’ll be shocked by how much of this stuff you’ve been consuming over the years in Germany. Döner Kebap? Absolutely loaded! I remember a visiting chef who wanted to try one real badly, although he’d caught a cold which had incapacitated his sense of smell and taste. Even crippled like that he could detect the MSG in his Kebap. And (although I know you, gentle reader, never partake of such a thing) forget about all that Chinapfanne and so on.
Again, I’m not trying to issue a blanket condemnation here. There are some circumstances, like Japanese food, where it’s absolutely essential to have MSG present. Even sensitive me eats it from time to time, but only when I know I’m doing it. Plenty of us are sensitive to MSG, blood pressure problems or not, and I would like to see oh-so-careful-about-food-impurities Germany, with its footnote numbers for artificial coloring, caffeine, quinine, and the like, add a requirement that restaurants — particularly those serving traditional German food — warn diners of the presence of monosodium glutamate in the dishes on their menus. Not only would it warn the sensitive, it would also indicate how lazy they are back in the kitchen.