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Hold the Racism, not the MSG

Author: Ben Sit, RD (CDN), RDN, Sports Dietitian

PCDA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisor

May is Asian heritage Month in Canada.  It’s a time to reflect and celebrate the contributions of Asians to the growth of Canada.   It was started in the 1990s and in May 2002, the Government of Canada signed an official declaration to designate May as Asian Heritage Month.  Surprisingly, this is all news to me, a Chinese-Canadian that was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.  

It’s hard to be excited about Asian Heritage Month when many Asians, including myself, see the double standard in this.  That on one hand it’s great that there is recognition and celebration of the struggles of Asian Canadians but its also hard to accept this as genuine when the history of Asians in Canada is so blatantly racist, even to this day.  That history has only grown worse through the COVID-19 pandemic where there has been a sweeping rise in Anti-Asian and Pacific Islander hate crimes in Canada.

It’s difficult to celebrate Asian Heritage month when there are so many false and harmful beliefs about Asian Culture.  While I don’t have the capacity to highlight every false belief or narrative amongst Asians, I will start at a point that has bothered me for years; the entirely unfounded claims about MSG.

MSG (Mono Sodium Glutamate) is an ingredient commonly found in cooking.  It’s a naturally occurring substance found in foods such as tomatoes, cheese and mushrooms.  MSG is used as a flavour enhancer to bring out the savoury elements of a dish and is predominately used in the food processing industry in foods like potato chips, ready to eat frozen meals, soup stocks and many other foods are commonly eaten without complaint.  MSG was originally discovered in Japan in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda who was trying to isolate the savory taste of Kombu (edible seaweed) as a flavour enhancer.  Despite its Japanese origins, MSG is most widely associated with Chinese Cuisine.   

Chinese food is one of the most pervasive Cuisines across the world.  Chinese food is served across all 7 continents (even Antarctica), it is served by NASA in Space to astronauts and there are more Chinese restaurants across America than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken COMBINED.  So, given its popularity across the world and across North America, why is Chinese food so poorly understood?

Well, there are many reasons for this. One of the primary reasons is because the North American/ Western world’s understanding of Chinese food is entirely monolithic and basic.  What is popularly known as “Chinese Food” in the Western World is an EXTREMELY westernized and misrepresented version of Cantonese Cuisine. It’s like saying Taco Bell is a good representation of Mexican Cuisine. In reality, there is no “Chinese Food” but there is Szechuan Cuisine, Fujianese Cuisine, Northern Chinese Cuisine, Southern Cantonese Cuisine, Hong Kong Street Style Cuisine and Taiwanese Cuisine.  Now that’s just a small list of the different cultures and regions that fall under the umbrella term “Chinese Food.” Each and every one of those cuisines and the unmentioned ones all have distinct cooking styles, ingredients and cooking philosophies tied together with Chinese Medicinal beliefs.  But despite Chinese foods’ popularity, it is the one Cuisine that is the most poorly understood. Unfortunately, this is because of racism and xenophobia. 

In order to understand the history of this racism, we have to look at the history of when the first wave of Chinese immigrants came into North America in the 1850s.  Without going into the full history, the first wave of Chinese immigrants were poor and took any work they could find to survive, this consisted of Agriculture, Mining, Railroads and Factory jobs.  The employers discovered that these Chinese Immigrants would work at a fraction of the price compared to locals out of sheer necessity and these employers happily took advantage of this desperation despite the local workforce’s objection. This led to a violent backlash with many shootings, lynchings and racist and xenophobic propaganda due to Americans being afraid of the Chinese Immigrants stealing their jobs.  The only jobs that Chinese Immigrants could hold that were not threatening to the American work force was in Laundromats or Restaurants.  This was to protect the “Manly” jobs and to further add to the racism against Asians – to give the men what was seen as “Women’s Work.”  So Chinese immigrants had only 2 choices that were safer than the rest – open up a Laundromat or a Restaurant. 

The national levels of racism were so bad that they culminated into the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, preventing all immigration of Chinese Laborers, including chefs until the 1943 Magnuson Act also known as the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943.  The first wave Chinese Immigrants that came to North America in the 1850s were then forced into a situation where they were not safe in traditional work environments, not safe on the streets and more and more racist information was spreading amongst the media with the New York Times publishing an article seriously asking if Chinese people eat rats.  This was a successful device used to further separate and alienate the Chinese not only from the locals but from their own culture, further fueling the racist fire.

There was only one choice for these Chinese immigrants, to band together and try to survive.  This created the Chinatowns all across North America, due to necessity and safety.  But the issue was that the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882 prevented trained Chefs from immigrating over, so these restaurants were built by untrained chefs hoping to share and taste their culture through food again.   In order for these restaurants to survive, they needed to change what they were cooking to adjust to the local flavours and what they would accept as “food.”   This quickly led to dishes today such as Chicken Balls with Red Sweet Sauce, Chicken Fried Rice, Fortune Cookies and other dishes that have literally nothing to do with Chinese Cuisine or culture.  This worked.  The locals accepted this, especially at the price point as the Chinese, to this day, need to de-value our labor in order to be accepted (Seriously, as a former professional Chef in French and Italian Cuisines – Asian culinary skills are BY FAR the most advanced cooking techniques I have ever studied).  At least those Chinese immigrants would be safer, or so they thought. 

Over the years the blatant racism became much more covert and sophisticated.  It became less acceptable to say things like “The Chinese eat cats” but the racism still exists. Instead of cats, things like décor, table service, cleanliness and MSG became the new scapegoat.  MSG reactions (which back in the day was actually called “Chinese food syndrome”) were described as lethargy, tiredness, extreme thirst, and numbness which is painful for me to know that this was accepted as science and truth back then.  Despite the fact that numerous research studies in the 1990s prove that MSG is not responsible for those things these beliefs about MSG still exist, even in the “evidence based” world of Dietetics to this day.  The part that I’m REALLY embarrassed about is that literally no Dietitian has ever linked those symptoms to a combination of dehydration and low blood sugar response, because that’s EXACLTY what’s being described.  In fact, it’s the systemic racism in the field of dietetics that actually prevents the critical thinking to determine that it’s a low blood sugar and dehydration following food choices extremely high in high glycemic index carbohydrates and sodium without adequate protein or fats to slow the blood sugar spike – which by the way, is the result of appealing to local flavours for those Chinese Immigrants to keep their restaurants open. This is exactly why Chinese restaurants are famous for having 2 menus, the written one and the secret one that Chinese people actually order from.   

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada and like I said, it’s hard to actually want to celebrate.  It’s hard to watch other Dietitians receive more success culturally appropriating Asian food and ingredients because it’s seen as “trendy” or suddenly “healthy” just because a white person is cooking it.  It’s hard to see this profession claim to be Evidence Based when so much of it isn’t and mis-information reinforcing racist ideas is still used by this profession.  I’ll celebrate my own way, by continuing to dismantle the systemic racism that is adding to the suffering of Asian Canadians, and when I’m done, I’ll be ordering peking duck, soft shell crab fried rice and steamed soup dumplings and efu fried noodles, give me that MSG but hold your racism. 

Ben Sit

PCDA thanks Ben Sit for his Guest post for Asian Heritage Month.


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