Whole Lotta Umami

The cooking buzzword last year was umami, the “fifth taste” responsible for our sensing “meatiness.” Before that taste had a name, however, cooks in the know had a pantry full of components they could add to boost a dish’s savory notes. A quick look through the Belm Research Kitchen turned up these (not including the bacon dashi in the Deep Storage Facility): shiro miso, instant dashi, soy sauce, Marmite yeast extract, anchovies, dried mushrooms (porcinis in this photo) tomato paste, and konbu.

The konbu (dried kelp) was the source from which glutamates, the molecules that trigger the umami taste, were first extracted and identified. The most well-known of the glutamates is, of course, monosodium glutamate or MSG. The can of Accent is pure MSG crystals, shown in the opening photo.

I mention all of this because I recently remembered something about an apartment I used to live in back in 1986. It was on Main Street in Cambridge, MA, situated above the Royal East Cantonese & Szechuan restaurant. (Although the Royal East has been at that location for almost 25 years, MIT old-timers still refer to it as Colleen’s, the name of the Chinese restaurant that preceded it. Why was a Chinese eatery named after an Irish girl? Beats me.) The building was narrow, so that although the front bedroom had a view of the street, the rear bedroom (mine) had a view of the parking lot in back, which was where our dumpster and the entrance to the restaurant kitchen was located.

One evening my roommate came home dragging something bulky behind him. It was a large empty cardboard drum, red on the outside with white lettering that proclaimed “MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE (MSG), 25 kg.” He found it next to the dumpster, obviously discarded from the Royal East kitchen. We fitted it with a trash can liner and proceeded to use it as our kitchen trash receptacle from then on. Visiting friends admired it, some asking us to keep an eye out for another one that they could put to similar use. I told then it might take quite a while for another one to turn up, since 25 kilograms is a lot of MSG.

Much to my surprise, about three months later, a second empty drum materialized in the kitchen. Having become familiar with the layout of the Royal East by this time (I was the wonton soup, boneless spare ribs and crispy duck takeout), I assumed it was the empty drum from the other side of their kitchen. I was happy with that explanation until yet another empty drum appeared. I was completely baffled: How much MSG did the place use?

I never bothered to try to answer that question until now. Let’s make some assumptions and do some math:

  1. Each dish receives a teaspoon of MSG.
  2. There are three teaspoons in a tablespoon.
  3. A tablespoon of MSG weighs 5 grams.
  4. Each evening 200 people are served.
  5. Each diner at the restaurant orders one dish.

A 25 kilogram drum of MSG contains 15,000 teaspoons: ((25,000g/5g) x 3) = 15,000 dishes.

200 people x 7 days/week = 1,400 dishes/week

Which means a new drum of MSG lasts almost 11 weeks: 15,000 dishes/1,400 dishes/week = 10.7 weeks. That seems to be in agreement with the frequency of drum appearances by the dumpster wihle we lived there.

At least two of my assumptions are speculation: the weight of a teaspoon of MSG (I couldn’t find that info online), and the customer churn at the restaurant. But the assumption that always bugged me, from then until now, was the one challenged by another friend:

How can you be sure you didn’t miss a drum?

The horror. The horror.

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2 Responses to Whole Lotta Umami

  1. Moopheus says:

    When I was in high school, I had a friend who lived in Chinatown, and his father was a cook at a Chinese restaurant. I remember seeing those drums in his apartment. I don’t think he used the stuff at home (and I did have dinner there on a few occasions), but repurposed the empty drums the way you did.

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