Umami has recently become the term du jour in the US. We have a chain called Umami Burger. Cooking sites discuss ways to enhance umami with mushrooms and tomato paste. But the Japanese have known umami by name for a century, and its cooks have mastered ways to amplify this “fifth flavor” by using seaweed, fish, and the contentious additive known as monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
For The New Yorker, Helen Rosner narrates her own love affair with MSG, which led her to visit the world’s largest MSG producer, Ajinomoto in Tokyo. Wrongly accused of causing headaches, MSG has shucked the lies of so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrom” and fallen back into favor. It’s Ajinomoto who has built an empire selling simple ways to improve the depth of our foods’ flavor, whether we know it’s in there or not.
The factory complex is a sprawling campus of production buildings, administrative offices, and giant fermentation tanks. (Most of Ajinomoto’s MSG is made from molasses, a cheaper and more reliable source than seaweed.) The campus is bisected by the tracks of the local commuter-rail line—the stop, called Suzukichō, is a nod to the company’s co-founder. (Its previous name was simply Ajinomoto-mai.) Like many of Japan’s old and powerful companies, the factory is delighted to welcome visitors for a tour, which is equal parts propaganda and industrial playacting. When I stepped off the train at Suzukichō station, the platform was dotted with stickers of vermilion panda paw prints, which led me on a short path to a low-slung modernist building with a white school bus covered with smiling pandas parked out front. This is Umami Science Square, Ajinomoto’s visitor center, and the starting point for the factory’s free ninety-minute guided tour.