By reclaiming the glory of MSG, we have the power to stop the racist stereotypes associated with the seasoning and help those who have been impacted by them—like me and my family—rewrite their stories. As a Hong Kong native who immigrated to the United States at the age of seven, I’ve experienced several episodes of xenophobia related to monosodium glutamate (aka MSG) in my lifetime, most recently at MAKfam, the restaurant I co-own with my husband, chef Kenneth Wan.

At MAKfam, we proudly serve an MSG-inspired cocktail called the MSGin and have a beautiful print adorning our walls by AAPI artist Brenda Chi called MSG Girl, a play on the Morton Salt girl. As a result, since opening in November 2023, we have received backlash on social media, some not-so-nice emails, and inquiries about MSG from customers who have walked away in disgust when we say we can’t accommodate them by removing it from our dishes.

MAKFam’s MSG girl poste
MAKfam’s MSG girl by artist Brenda Chi. Photo courtesy of MAKfam Instagram

In fact, certain common ingredients, such as veggie and chicken bouillon and soy sauce, that we and many other chefs—AAPI and not—use in our dishes already contain monosodium glutamate. We don’t add it to food because it’s often already in so many of the products we use. That is what I tried to explain to a patron who refused to eat our food because she said MSG gave her headaches. She didn’t care. Her family had a great time while she sat there with a sour face watching them eat. I’m sure she would have had a better time eating at any other restaurant that is not Chinese, while unknowingly consuming MSG.

Another incident took place on Instagram, where posts on the MAKfam account about our proud usage of MSG led to negative backlash. One woman even threatened to post in Facebook restaurant groups that we use the seasoning to stop her friends from dining at MAKfam. These disheartening interactions only fueled my desire to be more vocal about MSG and continue to fight the negative stigma surrounding this ingredient and Chinese food. But this wasn’t always the case growing up.

The MSGin cocktail at MAKfam.
The MSGin cocktail at MAKfam. Photo courtesy of MAKfam

For most of my life, I lived with the misconception that MSG was unhealthy. My perspective really shifted a few years ago when Kenneth showed me a clip from restaurateur and chef David Chang’s show Ugly Delicious, where he debunked the negative stigma surrounding MSG. That day, I learned that MSG is the most widely produced and used additive in the United States. Ken told me that all the things I had heard about MSG are false, and that a lot of the kitchens that he’s worked in use MSG daily like any other ingredient to bring out the umami flavor in food. We even label MSG in our restaurant and home kitchens as “umami,” one of the five basic tastes (the others are sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). The delicious, savory flavor is associated with Parmesan cheese, mushroom, steaks, and broth. It was at this point that I realized that MSG has been vilified and used to stray people away from consuming Chinese food, which inspired me to learn more about the topic.

My research revealed that the misconceptions started in 1968 after a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine claimed eating Chinese food seasoned with MSG was linked to ailments such as headaches, numbness, palpitations, etc. This group of symptoms was coined “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” The letter was proven to be a hoax, but the damage was done: MSG was vilified and Chinese food has been the target of attacks ever since.

Monosodium glutamate was first discovered by Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1907 in an effort to isolate the savory flavor in seaweed. Today, MSG is made via the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses. It’s a similar process to making yogurt, vinegar, and wine. There is nothing synthetic or artificial about the ingredient. MSG can be found in a lot of common foods, such as condiments like ranch and ketchup, cured foods like ham and tinned fish, and snacks like chips. It can also be found naturally in things like tomatoes, cheeses, mushrooms, and breast milk and even has one-third less sodium than regular table salt.

Despite these facts, MSG continues to be demonized and weaponized against Asian restaurants, specifically Chinese restaurants. People would never walk into an Italian, New American, French, Mediterranean, or basically any other restaurant that is not Chinese and ask, “Hey, do you use MSG here?” Our parents were bullied by a racist myth, and many like them had to run their restaurants in fear of MSG backlash.

When Ken was growing up, his parents owned a Chinese takeout restaurant, where some patrons complained they got sick from eating MSG-seasoned Chinese food. Because Ken’s parents were fearful of losing their business or getting sued by their customers, they kept their heads down, conformed to the masses, and did not rock the boat to keep food on the table and work toward a better life for their kids. These stories are not uncommon with Chinese immigrant families. We were taught to not be loud, to blend in, and do as we are told. Now it is time for us second-generation kids who have benefited from our parents’ struggles to stand up for ourselves.

Clearing up the misconceptions associated with MSG is important to me because I want to run my business and live my life without fear of backlash from customers or society. I want people to know MSG is not a Chinese food ingredient. It’s simply an ingredient, like salt, pepper, and garlic.

I leave you with two pieces of food for thought: First, check for monosodium glutamate or any ingredients labeled using the words “hydrolyzed, protein fortified, ultra-pasteurized, fermented, or enzyme modified” (that usually means they contain MSG) in the favorite foods or seasonings in your fridge and pantry. Second, give MSG a chance. Read about it, fact check your perceptions, and know that by educating others about MSG you’re preventing the spread of racist narratives.

Doris Yuen
Doris Yuen
Doris Yuen is the co-owner of MAKfam, which serves tradition-inspired Chinese cuisine in the Baker neighborhood.