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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.

6 comments on “Umami”

  1. Reply

    Contrary to what the PR gurus of Ajinomoto wants us to believe… umami is not solely contained in or achieved by the use of msg. RAWRRR!

    “Umami” or linamnam as my instructor said, can be achieved with the use of other ingredients such as cheese, mushrooms, and certain vegetables. MSG is just a shortcut to attaining umami.

    Yun lang po… feeling ko alam ko. 😛

    But yeah, junk foods are good noms!!! 🙂

    1. Reply

      Ria: Really? My friend says the same thing, that’s why it’s “taboo” daw. Still, as with most shortcuts, MSG tastes damn good.

      Besides, cheese + MSG, mushrooms + MSG, certain vegetables + MSG, good nom. lulz

  2. Reply

    The use of MSG is extremely frowned upon here in the US, and I often lament at the fact that I cannot enjoy any Asian cooking without it. I feel a small stab on my stomach whenever I see Asian restaurants advertising their “authenticity” juxtaposed with the large sign “NO MSG ADDED.” Why should we follow what we’re told? Why not allow ourselves the enjoyment of flirting with death? with obesity? with low blood sugar? with enjoying more food?

    1. Reply

      Laura: Nice hearing from you again, been like… I don’t know, quite a few years.

      Maybe the United States is still stuck in that way of thinking where MSG is made out of babies, or that their cooks found other ways to derive MSG from other stuff. As for me I’d rather cook and eat stuff with a lot of MSG. Maybe that’s your cue to come back home to the Philippines and have your fill of vetsin.

  3. Reply

    It seems that people either love vetsin or hate vetsin, some may be in limbo, though. But how can a small white crystal with a distinct taste of its own could potentially cause so much clash? Well, as the cliche goes, it all comes down to our taste buds. And as for me, I’ve always been grateful for the discovery of vetsin for it has always been enhancing that savory and saucy flavor of Filipino foods.

    • Kulas
    • October 15, 2009

    Please please please, add vetsin as the last ingredient if you’re gonna use some, when you get the levels of flavors to your liking without the MSG. Otherwise, you won’t learn to cook delicious food without it. This is the common mistake restaurants who offer “NO MSG” make. They don’t cook with MSG but their cooks don’t know how to cook without it. What my unsolicited advise is(sorry) when cooking, season your dish with no MSG, adjust everything like salt, spices, patis, black pepper(don’t cook without it), then when you can say it’s already delicious, add the vetsin and you’ll be in heaven.

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