How to Enjoy MSG with Less Guilt: A List of Plant-Based Foods Rich in Natural Glutamate

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If you follow Mr. Nigel Ng, aka Uncle Roger, you probably heard him mentioning MSG a lot. Growing up in an Asian household just like him, MSG was a part of my life. It’s the savior for amateur home cooks. It helps restaurants sell food. Sprinkle a bit of MSG and the food will taste way better. It rounds up everything. Researchers believe that MSG and other free glutamates are potent because they trigger special glutamate receptors in your mouth, unlocking the savory taste known as umami.

Gif by Nigel Ng

However, since our physician informed us that MSG is bad for our health, we cut down our MSG consumption. Initially, it was hard. Although we replaced it with a bit of sugar, the food tasted bland. Fortunately, with repetitions, we got used to it. We enjoy MSG occasionally when eating out, but we often suffer from dry mouth, constant thirst and headaches afterward.

In my post about Five Tips to Recover from Rejection, I listed down serotonin-boosting food as my go-to strategy to lift my mood — and it has to be delicious. After listening to Uncle Roger gushing about the power of MSG to make everything taste better, I began to wonder if it is possible to get MSG naturally, and I hoped it would be healthier than the processed ones. And for my vegan friends, I added other criteria: it has to be plant-based.

I hereby present to you my top 5 favorite plant-based foods naturally blessed with MSG.

1. Kombu or dried kelp (1344–3190 mg/100 g)

How to make kombu dashi.

Have you ever thought that a simple hot tofu soup can taste so great? If I haven’t tried Yudofu firsthand, I might not believe it. There are two essential ingredients: tofu and kombu dashi, a type of vegan stock popular in Japan. Let’s be honest. Although it’s nutritious, tofu is bland. The key to making this simple dish tasty is in the kombu dashi.

Kombu is edible kelp, a type of large, brown seaweed that grows in shallow, nutrient-rich saltwater near coastal fronts. It is an important ingredient to many East Asian cuisines. Some people even call kombu a superfood. Besides loaded with glutamates, kombu is also naturally rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats.

This seaweed can be consumed differently, but the simplest way to incorporate kombu into your dish is through dashi. Kombu dashi can be made with the cold brew technique. You can add one or two kombu strips in a big bottle of water and let it steep for 2–3 hours. You can get more information about how to prepare kombu dashi here.

2. Dried shiitake mushroom (1060 mg/100 g)

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Mom: “Can you check if our gas stove is leaking?”
Me: “Why?”
Mom (rolling her eyes): “Didn’t you notice the smell?”
Me (rolling my eyes): “Mom, that’s my shitake mushrooms. I’m soaking them right now!”

If you haven’t tried this mushroom, you’re missing out a lot. Shitake is the third most cultivated mushroom worldwide, just behind the white button mushroom and oyster mushroom. This earthy mushroom has a rich umami flavor and meaty texture. Natural shitake mushrooms have 70 mg of glutamates for every 100 grams. However, after they are dried, their glutamate content jumps to 1060 mg.

Dried shitake mushrooms are not only flavorful but also minimize food waste. After soaking the dried shitake mushrooms in a bowl of warm water for 20–30 minutes, you can use both rehydrated mushrooms and the soaking liquid for cooking. The golden-brown liquid has an intense flavor and can be used as a vegan-friendly stock in your cooking.

Caramelized shitake mushroom risotto, so yum!

Although shitake is native to East Asia, this mushroom is very versatile. You can incorporate shitake in many types of cooking. You can sautee it, roast it or use it for cooking risotto. The options are endless!

3. Green tea (17–450 mg/100 g)

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Do green teas have glutamates? Yes, they do, particularly Japanese teas because of the way they are grown and processed. Japanese manipulate the growing phase, such as shading the tea plants to produce more umami vegetal seaweed-like notes.

There are two amino acids responsible for green teas’ sweet and umami tastes. They are theanine and glutamate. It is worth noting that theanine’s chemical composition is similar to glutamate. However, not all Japanese green teas contain an equal level of glutamates. Among Japanese green teas, the superior variety of premium green tea (Gyokuro) contains the highest levels of both theanine and glutamate, followed by Sencha. There are 2500 mg of theanine and 450 mg of glutamate for every 100g of premium Gyokuro.

Ochazuke, topped with wasabi, in my opinion, is the best food to eat when you’re down with a cold

The Japanese also add green tea to their savory dishes, not only drinking or using green tea to make desserts. One of my favorites is Ochazuke — a simple one-bowl dish featuring steamed rice with an assortment of savory ingredients, partially steeped in green tea. This simple yet nourishing dish is great for breakfast or any time of the day.

4. Tomatoes (246 mg/100 g)

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“A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.”
Laurie Colwin, ‘Home Cooking’

My mom cannot cook that well, but her stir-fried green beans with tomato and garlic couldn’t fail to whet my appetite, even when she did not use MSG powder. The magic lies in my mom’s love, the tomato and the garlic. Let’s talk about tomatoes first.

Originated in western South America and Central America, tomatoes are widely grown across the world. Whether you are a tomato-is-fruit believer or in the tomato-is-vegetable camp, most of you can agree on one thing: tomatoes are delicious. Tomatoes naturally have a high content of glutamic acid, providing the umami flavor. As tomatoes ripen, their glutamic acid levels are also increasing. That is why many people look for ripe tomatoes when they shop for groceries.

Let’s have a quiz. Which part of tomato is the tastiest? The flesh or the pulp? If your answer is the pulp, congratulation. You got it right. One research discovered that tomatoes’ inner part, including the seeds, has a higher level of glutamic acid.

©Umami Information Center

Another fun fact: Tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that may help protect cells against damage. While we still can get lycopene from raw tomatoes, cooking the tomatoes help turn this antioxidant into a more readily absorbable and usable form.

5. Garlic (100 mg/100 g)

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Despite being notorious for giving garlic breath, many people worldwide use garlic to add a wonderful aroma and deepen savory flavor to their dishes. One of my friends often said, “There’s no such thing as too much garlic.” If you ever wolf down Spaghetti Aglio E Olio, you know what my friend was talking about.

You may already know garlic’s amazing health benefits to help improve immunity, reduce blood pressure, and so on. I will not bore you with that. Instead, I’d like to share with you how Chinese households use garlic to make many simple meals taste so delicious: crispy fried garlic and garlic oil. Make a big batch of it and add it to your fried rice, soup, stir fry vegetables, or anything you like. Yum, yum, yum.

Ah Pa knows how to make good food.

Amazingly, mother nature provides us with many natural ingredients that are both tasty and nutritious. A fulfilling, delicious and healthy meal can help turn a bad mood around, satiating our body and soul. I hope you find this list useful. Leave a comment if you’d like to recommend any ingredient or recipe for me to try.

P.S.: Yummy meals still fail to make you happy?
Try these free meditation and self-healing resources.

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Associate Strategy Director at Romp! Advertising Agency. Love matcha, eating, and sometimes cooking. Practicing Open Heart Meditation.

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Olivia Sulistio

Olivia Sulistio

Associate Strategy Director at Romp! Advertising Agency. Love matcha, eating, and sometimes cooking. Practicing Open Heart Meditation.

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