UCLA Dining

The Power of Fusion… Minus MSG

I set out to investigate how MSG is circulating in campus offerings as part of a new research interest with Umami Digest. On a Tuesday afternoon, I met an extremely enthusiastic Mark Kim to discuss how umami is imagined in UCLA’s dining vision. He arrived with a box full of seasoning bases ready to give me a taste for the different flavors used to enhance dishes. A Korean American classically trained in French cuisine and the mastermind behind Feast, UCLA’s experiment in providing students with an Asian-fusion dining hall experience. Kim came with industry bonafides, having formerly trained through Le Cordon Bleu culinary program and managed Gingergrass- an upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills combining French and colonial Vietnamese traditions, upon other experience.

Since Feast’s creation in the Fall of 2011, Mark has executed his vision of using fresh, quality ingredients from local vendors, offered at multiple stations operating as independent mini-restaurants, and bringing a white tablecloth restaurant experience to the dine and dash culture of student meals. When menu development was underway, a group of students- referred to as the distinguished palate community- was formed to incorporate student feedback on multi-cultural dishes.

In order to deliver a punch of flavors in dishes, Mark relies on the combination of ingredients that, when joined together, create that unique “fifth taste” dimension to food. He strives for the perfect balance of flavors that creates an  irresistible taste impression. One common, cheap, and easy way to create umami flavor involves the use of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Those who know of MSG widely understand it as the flavor enhancer implicated in the infamously xenophobic “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” reconceived in the 1990s as the “MSG symptom complex” –which is characterized by a cluster of unpleasant symptoms (headaches, sweating, numbness or burning in the mouth/throat, nausea, fatigue, and exacerbation of asthma symptoms). While the FDA currently classifies MSG as safe, this debate remains controversial. I’m told that UCLA’s Feast dining hall, founded with the vision of creating delicious, healthy food with high standards, does not use MSG in any dishes.

I ask Mark why Feast does not use MSG–when the additive is nearly ubiquitous in institutional food service–and he shares a story about his father. He says his then teenaged dad witnessed a shift in the 1960s, when use of the additive went from a pinch of MSG sprinkled into a huge vat of broth to increasingly larger spoonfuls. Mark shares that “when used properly in small amounts, MSG greatly enhances dishes and adds that magic touch of flavor.” He cautions, though, that MSG became “overused rapidly, leading to the host of symptoms people now experience.”

The original purpose of enhancing food has been overdone, says Mark, prompting trained chefs all around to rely upon other ways to create umami flavor without MSG. He compares the stigma attached to MSG to that of iodized salt. In very small portions, these substances transform the flavor of a dish, but when used in excess, cause adverse effects, and as a result, products get replaced by boogeymen.

Since Mark is a trained chef who has personally experienced MSG’s umami power, I expected Feast’s dishes to incorporate the additive –especially for the sake of sticking to a budget, feeding masses of students, and providing a flavor kick in the most streamlined manner possible. Not so. Mark says that the opposition involved with using MSG is not worth the flavor benefit–especially when such flavor can be created other ways.

But how, I ask? Mark reflects that he doesn’t even think to use MSG in dishes because of a host of other substances.

Fish sauce is one of his staples… it comes in handy for a wide array of dishes (Author image).

Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce (Author image)

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Oyster sauce- a commonly used flavor enhancer (soy sauce base) (Author image)

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A variation from the above brand of oyster sauce… various regions use culturally specific oyster sauce (Author image)

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A different form of seasoning used as the base of many stews and broths. Ingredients comprising this product include several common umami additives (yeast extract, soy sauce powder, bonito extract powder, hydrolyzed bonito protein, kelp powder, shiitake extract powder) but no MSG.

Mark shares that oyster sauce, golden mountain sauce, fish sauce, and other concentrated vegetable bases bring about the same flavor kick as MSG. The current market is shifting towards alternative, natural flavor bases in support of this trend. Umami flavor can be delivered through various modes, including ground sardines and seafood, vegetable protein, hydrolyzed meat or fish, and more.

Because the flavor of dishes is not lacking in any way and various products exist that allow for the creation of umami flavor without MSG, Mark asserts that he doesn’t even think to use it. For example, a combination of spices, spice seasoning mix without MSG, and meat broth create umami flavor for the base of pho, a popular dish served at Feast. Alternatively, combining fresh palm sugar and fish sauce with hydrolyzed vegetable protein brings about umami flavor in a different way.  While many flavor enhancing ingredients involve meat or fish bases, several sauces accommodate the vegetarian crowd, including a widely used golden mountain sauce from Thailand, which acts as a vegetarian substitute for fish sauce. Fermentation provides a way to expand flavors of commonly used substances/products; one sauce, fermented at different points in time, develops into multiple variations, opening the door for even more flavor combinations.

The greatest complaint received from students regarding food served at Feast is the perceived saltiness of some dishes. Mark tells me that this comes from the commonly used base of garlic that, when boiled down to a sauce, releases natural salt and creates an illusion of added sodium. So, the dining facility relies on the above flavor bases to potentiate flavors and makes a point of keeping sodium levels moderate. However, Mark cautions, it’s difficult to please every palate. For everyone who complains about saltiness, it seems to Mark, there’s someone else shaking table salt onto their dish. If someone feels they need a salty boost, Feast provides a wide selection  of sauces and salt shakers for people to use at their own discretion.

I ask Mark what he wants students to know about what goes on behind the scenes at Feast. He replies that he wishes dining halls were more conducive to chef-customer interaction–he admits that a large portion of Feast diners don’t share the same dining experience as restaurant goers because of dining halls’ buffet format encourages college students to gorge and dash, rather than savor their meal . Because of this difference, Mark sometimes struggles to interact with students, educate them on the ingredients that go into their meals, and engage in more open-minded dialogue, inquiries about a dish before jumping straight to judgements.

My take-home? Umami taste is at the heart of everything Feast does. But if you want to know more about the difference between fish sauce, oyster sauce, hydrolyzed protein, and the MSG he doesn’t use–Mark seems to have a lot of answers, or at least delicious ideas!