When my aunt was diagnosed with – and recovered from – cancer, she started preaching the evils of vetsin. Part of the “healthy living” message she shared to us was that monosodium glutamate is carcinogenic, that it contains bad chemicals that pose a danger to our health, and too much linamnam doesn’t do the body any good. I didn’t hear her compare vetsin-laden food to asupre at dagat-dagatang apoy, but that doesn’t stop her from taking an occasional bite of shrimp tempura.
Mom, however, is an avowed fan of vetsin. The whole point in her cooking – whether it was caldereta or puto muffins stuffed with pizza topping – was that it wasn’t edible without at least half a pack of Ajinomoto sprinkled on the dish before it is served. MSG occupies an almost-revered position in the spice rack, right next to sesame oil and liquid seasoning. Dinner was never “dinner” until me and my brother raid the kitchen for more rice to finish off the viands. Yet Mom always makes a point about “dieting.”
Vetsin; what a word. Illicit in the eyes of health freaks, illegal in the eyes of the food connoisseur. For some, umami should only be derived from natural ingredients. For others, it is best sprinkled on the final dish. “Taboo,” says a friend in culinary school, as it redacts the patient process of reducing stocks, soups, and sauces. “Awesome,” says another friend, as it brings out the flavor faster and easier. Whether it’s chop suey, fried chicken breading, or a margarita, glutamate is a building block of awesome.
Every day, my office cubicle is a repository of umami. Lately, junk food has been my main motivation for writing. While Jack N’ Jill Potato Chips and Coke have taken over the role of a proper breakfast, there’s always umami flakes (Kirei) and umami sticks (Oishi) that keep the creative juices flowing. It’s the closest thing to pure umami dissolving in your mouth and controlling every neuron, axon, and synapse. Add nicotine and alcohol to that, and you pretty much have living.
Umami is a taste like love: it simply cannot be explained. From the first touch, the momentary lingering, to the unforgettable aftertaste, you simply want more. Food is life, and MSG enhances it. What is miso soup without the Ajinomoto, but sour bits of fermented soybean paste? The taste of curry is not the same without vetsin, save for the almost acrid taste of processed, powdered turmeric. Adobo, that staple of Filipino food culture, is meat, soy sauce, vinegar, and vetsin. Whatever you add to it is a matter of taste. Then there’s the half-sachet discreetly poured into a pitcher of mixed drinks; indeed, the fun to be had.
That doesn’t stop me from sneaking a sachet of vetsin from the cupboard and savor the grains as they stand. Instead of a carefully-folded piece of cigarette foil, the case of a ballpoint pen, and a disposable lighter, the illicit substance (at least in the eyes of health people who still think that monosodium glutamate is made from people) is best consumed as it stands. With a wet finger dipped into heaven, usually. There’s something sensual – perhaps sexual – about it all, even.
Yet my aunt insists, “No.” Some of my friends still decry it for being the antichrist of cooking. Yet food can never be the same without it: granules that can only be described as “flavor.” If food is life, then umami must be its breath.