Food is one of the easiest ways to connect with family, friends and even strangers. Furthermore, food can be a catalyst that shapes identity. This has proven to be especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic where people bond with recipes, both in-person and virtually.1 On the other hand, food is also one of the easiest ways to divide communities. While people are self-isolating and consuming certain rhetoric about the pandemic, this has led to an increased surge of xenophobia directed towards East & Southeast Asians globally.2 However, this surge should not be a surprise, as food from many cultures are often used as catalysts for discriminatory and persistent stereotypes.
From the early 1930s to the present day, MSG (monosodium glutamate) and its meanings continue to shape the way North Americans view and experience Chinese cuisine. By looking closely at MSG’s meaning in North America, this paper’s goal is to demonstrate how distinct cultural environments and political climates can shape the way we consume and understand food, thus, shaping how we view people. To do so, I will discuss the following: the origins of MSG and its impact on the American food system, how Chinese Restaurant Syndrome has informed the rhetoric of COVID-19, and a case study based on participant observation in Toronto’s Dundas-Spadina Chinatown restaurant business.
The Origins: Ajinomoto & the US Food System
As with most consumable objects, food holds meanings that we culturally construct, and in return, meanings shift and shape world views. The history of the Japanese Ajinomoto brand is extraordinary in this respect. Being the world’s most well-known brand for MSG, it has travelled around the world as a shapeshifter, as differing cultural and political climates have formed notions of cleanliness, imperialism, and racism around it. Before examining these notions, let’s establish what it is at a scientific level: monosodium glutamate, infamously known as the abbreviated MSG, is a naturally occurring amino acid found in foods such as tomatoes and cheese (Yeung). Throughout history, people around the world have found ways to extract and ferment this amino acid to tap into the fifth basic taste: umami.3 In “A Short History of MSG: Good Science, Bad Science and Taste Cultures”, author Jordan Sand describes how Ikeda Kikunae brought the “fifth taste” to the limelight by isolating the amino acid from sea kelp (38). Ajinomoto, translated as the essence of taste, began its marketing in 1909 offering “predictability, efficiency, convenience and scientific guarantees of hygiene and nutrition, attributes consonant with the Meiji-period goals of civilization and enlightenment” (Sand 40). These characteristics found their way to bourgeois Japanese kitchens targeting the domestic demographic where it was believed that women embraced their roles in the kitchen and used Ajinomoto as a challenge to concoct new meals for their families (41). Sand further elaborates on how the “pure white” colour of it lends itself to symbolism parallel to bleaching and disinfecting. In a similar vein, one can compare this food product’s impact on the constructed idea of the housewife, to the reinforced gender distinctions made for hygiene-related plastic goods in American households (41).
Professor Eric Nay presented a lecture at OCAD University on the history of plastic waste, where he analyzed how 1950s advertising of plastics created the narrative of “better living through chemistry”. He notes that the brightly coloured dishware and mats spark similarities to Bruce Retallack’s inquiry into the material culture of shaving, describing how coloured product design is implemented to appeal to a feminine demographic.4 In conjunction with versatility, gender roles flourish in this kind of marketing; attracting the stereotypical homemaker and providing them with a sense of authority in creating a clean, hygienic kitchen (Nay).
As the Japanese product made its way to surrounding countries like Taiwan and China, it acquired yet another meaning in new domestic environments. In the early 1900s, China initially resisted the product as it was a reminder of Japanese Imperialism (Sand 42). Despite resentment towards Japan, Sand explains that with time it became a part of the Chinese cooking repertoire as a cheap way to make instant stock and a flavour enhancer for vegetarian meals” (42). Similarly, the canned cooked pork product made by Hormel Foods Corporation, otherwise known as SPAM, “established itself as a local favourite” despite its origins born out of national sacrifice (Matejowsky 26). Author of “SPAM and Fast-food ‘Glocalization’ in the Philippines,” Ty Matejowsky, explains that although it became a source of comfort and nostalgia for some, SPAM also became an “unappetizing reminder of the widespread deprivation brought on by the Great Depression” (25). Furthermore, its arrival internationally, in countries such as the Philippines and South Korea, created “ambivalences and resentments felt by indigenous populations towards the US military”, parallel to the initial resistance Ajinomoto faced upon arrival in China (26). Besides these resentments, both SPAM and Ajinomoto’s histories are linked due to their large presence in the canned food industry. During the rise of factory foods in the United States, MSG became an integral player. In the mid-1930s until 1941, the United States bought more Ajinomoto than any other country outside of Japan and Taiwan (Sand 43). Manufacturers such as Campbell’s Soup Company were responsible for this demand, as well as the US military incorporating the additive into food rations (43). Consequently, whether consumers applied MSG with intention or not, its presence in canned and frozen foods “delivered large quantities of the flavor stimulant to American taste receptors” (44). Knowing its presence on the nutrition labels of seemingly “more American” foods, such as Campbell’s soup and Doritos, the questions to ask now are: Why isn’t there a Campbell’s Soup Syndrome or Doritos Syndrome? Why is it only Chinese cuisine that gets a bad reputation with MSG?
This is a case of irony, manifesting in an object that evolved from a symbol of hygiene and cleanliness to a symbol of illness and filth. In Tamara Kohn’s analysis on the American Thanksgiving Dinner, she draws upon the Brillat-Savarin quotation “tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are” - explaining how food can tell us about how society is organized and given meaning (50). The Thanksgiving dinner encapsulates the way eating together can help us understand how “people structure, express and experience group cohesion and belonging, and to determine the nature of a variety of social relationships and identities” (50). However, in Jennifer Lemesurier’s “Uptaking Race,” she describes how a process called genre uptake can stop the success of meaningful connection around a table (2). Lemesurier defines genre uptake as a process of information selection and interpretation that can reproduce prejudicial attitudes and solidify them into common-sense beliefs (2). She uses George Frederick Keller’s 1877 cartoon “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” to illustrate her point, the cartoon depicts individuals from several nations eating stereotypical foods to highlight their irreconcilable differences (4). This is another example of how irony manifests in something that simultaneously unites and divides. Keller illustrates several stereotypical representations of cultural stereotypes: a Frenchman eating frog legs, a Native American chewing on a deer leg and lastly, a Chinese man with a rat on his fork. However, Lemesurier notes that the Chinese man is the only one who evokes expressions of disgust and horror from fellow diners (5). These observations provide some insight into how the uptake of MSG in North America has roots in exotifying difference, transferring a sliding scale of disguised xenophobia and disgust in the everyday.
Assimilating to Survive: The No-MSG movement to the “China Virus”
Throughout history Anti-Asian racism manifests itself in anti-Chinese food rhetoric, we see this in Keller’s illustration of the consumption of rats, to the bat soup allegedly connected to the Coronavirus (Lemesurier and Ramirez). Unfortunately, this expressed repulsion has transcended till this day. The fear surrounding Chinese food has been normalized through Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, a widespread term once supported by Western doctors. The syndrome can be found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, where it was originally defined as a legitimate illness that included symptoms of heart palpitations and headaches, brought on by food seasoned with monosodium glutamate, but “especially Chinese food”.5 As this term gained traction in the American zeitgeist, Chinese immigrants responded to it by reassuring customers that there was no MSG used in their food, trying their best to distance themselves from stigma to socially survive in a new country (Sand). “No MSG” signs soon became essential to American Chinese restaurants, where it added another level of pressure as they adapted their culture’s cuisine out of desperation to please North American palates. According to food historian, Kathleen Curtin, this pressure to assimilate is tied to how Thanksgiving celebrations masqueraded as conformity and were encouraged by social reformers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Kohn 62). Curtin explains how this conformity was used “to get rid of ‘the scourge of heavily scented food’ coming into the country through immigration” and how “ethnicity continued to be perceived as a handicap, [that kept] people from assimilating and achieving the American Dream” (62).
A 2019 incident involving a restauranteur who opened Lucky Lee’s, a fast-casual Chinese restaurant in New York City, is an example of how these negative associations with Chinese food can be misused for profit. The restauranteur, Arielle Haspel, claimed to serve “clean” Chinese food that “wasn’t too oily” and would not make people feel “bloated and icky” (Yeung). As a nutritionist, Haspel wanted to create a healthier alternative to American Chinese food (Fegan). While there is nothing inherently wrong with that intent, the way in which Haspel markets this message is problematic. The term “clean” in the wellness community may mean gluten-free or allergen-free, however, it is also the opposite of dirty – an adjective that continues to affect many Chinese restaurants to this day.
A year later, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the all-encompassing rhetoric of Chinese food was plagued once again with wide-spread fear, for both the virus and East-Asian people. Since the first cases reported in Wuhan, China, the two have become synonymous and have led to innumerable attacks against Asians globally.6 In tandem with “misinformation and harmful imagery online that play into stereotypes,” some were shocked at this blatant racism that seemed like it came out of nowhere (Ramirez). Nevertheless, as discussed, the pandemic has not created new racist ideas – it only exacerbated what was lying beneath the surface. While the discussion of wet markets, zoonotic diseases and industrial food supply is not a simple one, it is important to note how the media has popularized the connection between diet & the virus through sensationalist imagery & language, and how it is impacting Chinese cuisine, livelihoods and individuals.7 As Donny Santacaterina states in “Rumor, Chinese Diets, and COVID-19”, “current reactions to the coronavirus are part of a long and storied history of food, diet, hygiene, morality, and disease in [a] Chinese context” (80). A comment made by a Fox News anchor in March 2020, recalls Lemesurier’s analysis discussed earlier: “They have these markets where they were eating raw bats and snakes… They are very hungry people. The Chinese Communist government cannot feed the people, and they are desperate. This food is uncooked, it is unsafe and that is why scientists believe that’s where [COVID-19] originated from” (King et al. 81). On top of the high percentage of business closures Chinatowns have been experiencing,8 comments such as these can be attributed for more closures and racism expressed towards Chinese small restaurant operations in the United States (82).
Toronto’s Downtown Chinatown: A Case Study on Local Businesses
Amidst the 2020 Lunar New Year celebrations for the year of the rat, news about the virus was just starting to gain traction in North America. At the time, I was working directly with the Toronto Chinatown BIA (Business Improvement Area) and STEPS Public Art, facilitating art workshops with the community to construct a lantern installation at Dragon City Mall. The official celebration was filled with excitement and communal strength; however, soon after the news struck, the community witnessed a drop in visitors and business to local shops. Hustling and bustling Spadina markets and cafes soon became a memory of the past, a drop in pedestrian traffic becoming the norm. Initiatives such as socially distanced Chinatown food crawls and social media features were launched in hopes of supporting local restaurants’ takeout and delivery options. For survival, restaurants including R.A.C. had to adapt to a different model to accommodate for health and safety.9 Offering authentic Fuzhou style cuisine and all-you-can-eat Dim Sum fare, R.A.C. is one of many restaurants that foster community and the practice of feasting, providing a “glimpse into ritually elaborated commensal activity” as Kohn states (50). Pre-pandemic, I was able to visit the location with a group of friends for a late morning dim sum. Although this restaurant is serving Chinese food in a Chinese community, there are aspects of assimilation and conformity that I noticed while dining. Comparing it to other locations I have visited, R.A.C.’s dining environment was more contemporary – this is in part to it opening only a decade ago in 2011. Except for the round dim sum tables and lazy Susans, it had a neutral colour palette with furnishings that could easily be found at any Western or continental restaurant. This is a possible example of the distancing Chinese restaurant owners have executed to avoid stigmas of the past. Despite this assumed distancing or assimilation, it does not stop discriminatory reviews to be present for many Chinatown businesses. An example of one is "Points lost because of the MSG", a straightforward statement that conflates MSG with being inherently bad and Chinese food being unhealthy or dirty. While nothing is healthy in excess, such as salt or sugar, the context in which this language is used is what makes this discourse problematic. There are rarely complaints on the amount of MSG in Cheetos or Campbell’s canned soup, while this could be in part to lack of awareness, it can be attributed mainly to the politics surrounding Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, as discussed earlier. Thus, I stress the importance of learning how food is connected to not only health, but also to culture and politics. It may just be sustenance, or pleasure for the privileged, but it also holds onto histories that cause misinformation and discrimination in the present. As Lemesurier states, “We need to understand how these racialized tropes are being adopted/adapted to elide/hide racism and allow it to emerge under new terms and in new contexts;” if we do not, nothing is stopping them from repeating in the future (20). It is important to acknowledge that this is not a “cure for racism” by any means, understanding what a racialized trope is, does not immediately absolve racists from being racists. This acknowledgement is just one component to being actively anti-racist.10
It is difficult to think of the day when Chinese cuisine in a Western context will be talked about respectfully and without mention of a virus or a racialized trope. However, what this moment provides us is an opportunity to address the leftovers of anti-Chinese sentiments from the past century as it gains awareness in the pandemic. It is imperative that these covert sentiments and overt xenophobic actions do not get swept under a rug, only to be fuel for a political agenda. It is no simple task. However, understanding how complex histories and systems of racism manifest in our daily lives, whether it appears at the dinner table or the evening news, is a start to appreciating cultures for their differences instead of dismissing them out of disgust.
Meegan Lim is an illustrator and multidisciplinary creative of Chinese-Malaysian descent, based in Tkaronto (Toronto, Ontario). She is known for her detailed illustrations exploring the intersections of food, culture & social change. Her work often provides a colourful entry point into social injustices that can be hard to digest. She works with organizations such as STEPS Public Art and Arts Etobicoke to develop engaging programs to nurture community growth and healing.
- Cooking & baking has not only provided sustenance, but also, entertainment & community during the pandemic. Specifically stating how gathering on social media platforms to share recipes has turned into an online support group for some. See Chittal.
- In a report released by Statistics Canada in July 2020, the agency wrote that the proportion of visible minorities who experience an increase in harassment or attacks based on their race, ethnicity or skin colour has tripled since the start of the pandemic, the largest increase seen among Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian individuals. See Liu.
- Umami is synonymous with monosodium glutamate, it is one of the core basic tastes alongside sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. In Japanese, it means “essence of deliciousness” and is often described as “meaty and savory taste” that deepens flavour. See Ajinomoto.
- Retallack explores the ways in which material objects, such as grooming products, reflect & reinforce “traditional gender distinctions in modern North American culture”. See Retallack, 4-5.
- In May 2020, the controversy surrounding this syndrome gained enough attention for Merriam-Webster to revise the entry. The definition now has a detailed disclaimed noting that it is “dated” and “offensive”, as well as a link to the more clinical term, “MSG symptom complex”. See The Associated Press.
- Conflating Chinese people with a virus has led to 6,603 incident reports to Stop AAPI Hate from March 19, 2020, to March 31, 2021. Reports include verbally harassment (65.2%), shunning (18.1%), physical assault (12.6%), civil rights violations (10.3%) and online harassment (7.3%). See Jeung et al.)
- In “Rumor, Chinese Diets, and COVID-19”, the authors explain how these sensationalist images misinform the masses when in reality, zoonotic spillover of viral disease can happen anywhere that there are close interactions between humans and animals. For further discussion, see King et al, 79-80.
- Part of this percentage was already changing because a lot of immigrant cooks have had children who have moved on to different professions. See King et al, 82.
- R.A.C is a pseudonym of a Chinese restaurant located in Downtown Toronto’s Chinatown.
- Anti-racism is a commitment that requires meaningful actions in order for impactful change, this includes but is not limited to amplification of BIPOC communities, allyship and challenging racism on a daily basis. See National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Works Cited & Consulted
- Adams, Brian. “History Doesn’t Repeat, But It Often Rhymes.” HuffPost Australia, Huffington Post, 19 Jan. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com.au/brian-adams/history-doesnt-repeat-but-it-often-rhymes_a_21657884.
- Ajinomoto. “What Is Umami? 5 Facts about Umami: Everything about Umami: Umami Global Website.” Ajinomoto Group Global Website, 2021, www.ajinomoto.com/aboutus/umami/5-facts.
- Chittal, Nisha. “Quarantine Cooking Is About More than Just Feeding Yourself.” Vox, Vox, 27 Mar. 2020, www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/27/21195361/quarantine-recipes-cooking-baking-coronavirus-bread.
- Fegan, MacKenzie. “N.Y. Restaurant Promising 'Clean' Chinese Food Is Offensive, Insensitive: Food Writer | CBC Radio.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 10 Apr. 2019, www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-wednesday-edition-1.5092106/n-y-restaurant-promising-clean-chinese-food-is-offensive-insensitive-food-writer-1.5092111.
- Jeung, Russell, et al. “National Report.” Stop AAPI Hate, Stop AAPI Hate, 20 May 2021, stopaapihate.org/national-report-through-march-2021/.
- King, Michelle T., et al. “Rumor, Chinese Diets, and COVID-19.” Gastronomica, vol. 21, no. 1, 2021, pp. 77–82., doi:10.1525/gfc.2021.21.1.77.
- Kohn, Tamara. “Stuffed Turkey and Pumpkin Pie: In, Through and Out of American Contexts.” Cultural Studies Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 2013, pp. 50–72. Crossref, doi:10.5130/csr. v19i1.3075.
- Lemesurier, Jennifer L. “Uptaking Race: Genre, MSG, and Chinese Dinner.” Poroi, vol. 12, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1–23. Crossref, doi:10.13008/2151-2957.1253.
- Liu, Stephanie. “Reports of Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Are Surging in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” CTVNews, CTV News, 18 Mar. 2021, www.ctvnews.ca/canada/reports-of-anti-asian-hate-crimes-are-surging-in-canada-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-1.5351481.
- Matejowsky, Ty. “SPAM and Fast-Food ‘Glocalization’ in the Philippines.” Food, Culture & Society, vol. 10, no. 1, 2007, pp. 23–41. Crossref, doi:10.2752/155280107780154088.
- Nay, Eric. "Plastic and Waste." Lecture for SOSC3001: Material Culture & Consumer Society, 2020.
- National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Talking About Race: Being Antiracist.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian, 7 May 2021, nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/being-antiracist.
- Ramirez, Rachel. “Xenophobia amid the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Hurting Chinese Immigrant Neighborhoods.” Vox, 14 Mar. 2020, www.vox.com/identities/2020/3/14/21179019/xenophophia-chinese-community-sunset-park.
- Retallack, Bruce. “Razors, Shaving and Gender Construction: An Inquiry into the Material Culture of Shaving.” Material History Review, vol. 49, no. 1, 1999, pp. 4–14, journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/17782.
- Sand, Jordan. “A Short History of MSG: Good Science, Bad Science, and Taste Cultures.” Gastronomica, vol. 5, no. 4, 2005, pp. 38–49. Crossref, doi:10.1525/gfc.2005.5.4.38.
- Song, Jee Eun Regina. “The Soybean Paste Girl: The Cultural and Gender Politics of Coffee Consumption in Contemporary South Korea.” Journal of Korean Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2014, pp. 429–48. Crossref, doi:10.1353/jks.2014.0026.
- The Associated Press. “Merriam-Webster Revises 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' Entry.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 22 May 2020, 20:09, abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory/merriam-webster-revises-chinese-restaurant-syndrome-entry-70842768.
- Yeung, Jessie. “MSG in Chinese Restaurants Isn’t Unhealthy -- You’re Just Racist, Activists Say.” CNN, 19 Jan. 2020, edition.cnn.com/2020/01/18/asia/chinese-restaurant-syndrome-msg-intl-hnk-scli/index.html.
Header Photo by Meegan Lim. Harvest Garden Zine Interior, 2021.