My dad was a Chinese restaurant chef in Manchester in the early Nineties (hopefully you’ll have a mental image of garlic frying to the sound of M People). If you’ve ever had Cantonese food in the West, you’ll know that the food is both gloopy and delicious. But not tasty in a ‘these ingredients work really well together’ kind of way, but more that you can’t physically stop eating and you don’t know why. Its the same feeling you get when eating certain types of potato crisps, that tingling in your mouth after you’ve finished the family-sized bag alone in your room. The snack-guilt realisation that this bag has replaced one of your daily meals. Your stomach a pit of dehydrated-potato despair.
My dad’s food owed its shiny thick sauces to the widespread use of cornstarch and its savoury addictiveness to Monosodium Glutamate (or MSG for short). It’s a flavour enhancer by trade, which presumably means that it will make water taste more watery when added.
My mum never really used the stuff – she said it was for cooks who couldn’t cook. And so opened the gulf in culinary relations between my parents. One side of the wall was the additive-ridden and chilli spiked, where go-go girls armed with a mysterious white substance would show you a good time before running off and leaving you with a slight headache. The other side used humble ingredients intelligently but simply, paying more attention to the balance of different textures and flavours. The result was honest homely fare.
From this description it is obvious as to which school I subscribed to. Which is why I was excited when I learnt the words ‘khong me jing’ here which means ‘no MSG’. It’s an additive ubiquitous in Hanoi – shops here sell piles of the salt-like grain alongside sugared milk and instant noodles.
Most Phở here is converted to the chemical. As you order a bowl of noodles, MSG is added to your bowl as they pour the beef broth over the top. So the next time I had it on the street I used my newly-learnt words and sat down accomplised, triumphant as the lady nodded her understanding and furnished me a steaming bowl.
The broth was delicious. The beef stock oozing flavour, combining with star anise and fish sauce to form the tight rhythm-section of your favourite song. Like music to my mouth. I finished the bowl with zest and looked forward to reclaiming my romantic view of Vietnam as a place of delicious traditional food made from natural ingredients.
As I went to pay, I noticed that the same lady who served me was busy ladling large spoons of a salt-like substance directly into the beef stockpot. There was MSG in there all along. Her face was expressionless as money exchanged hands, and I walked away wondering which other of my favourite dishes here have also had the equivalent of steroids pumped into their perma-tanned arms.