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Old 04-02-2008, 04:28 PM
Sycorax Sycorax is offline
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Why so much sodium in Chinese food?

I love Chinese food; hubby likes it but not as much as I. I could live on the stuff. But neither hubby nor I want a lot of sodium in our diets, and (American) Chinese food has lots of it, especially soy sauce, but I don't use that. I can't find anything online that says WHY so much sodium is used. Do the Chinese use that much sodium, or do they think that Americans want it? (I realize American Chinese food is not the same as genuine Chinese food.) If no sodium is added, would that affect the flavors to a great extent? Will my local Chinese carryout use less (or no) sodium if I ask them?
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  #2  
Old 04-02-2008, 06:38 PM
ltfire ltfire is offline
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It's MSG, a flavor enhancer.
You can say no MSG when you place your order and it won't be added.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium_glutamate
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Old 04-02-2008, 07:27 PM
Sycorax Sycorax is offline
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I did some research online and nothing I found mentioned MSG except as an additive to which some people are allergic. My impression (from online searching) was that MSG is a flavor enhancer and not the same as the very large amounts of sodium. So what's the difference?
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Old 04-02-2008, 07:52 PM
Darryl Lict Darryl Lict is online now
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Most of the restaurants around this neck of the woods are MSG free. At real dives, sometimes it's still added. I think I can tell because it gives me kind of a marijuana-like buzz.

As to the saltiness, I would guess that is what the market will bear. Cheap Chinese food is usually quite fatty too. You wouldn't believe how much oil they put in chow mein. I'm under the impression that few cheap restaurants are concerned about the healthiness of their food.
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Old 04-02-2008, 08:07 PM
HongKongFooey HongKongFooey is offline
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http://www.ific.org/publications/brochures/msgbroch.cfm

I wouldn't worry about the MSG too much, most of what you hear about it is overblown. I think Darryl Lict's comment on the oil is very good; some restaurants use an obscene amount of oil.

Last edited by HongKongFooey; 04-02-2008 at 08:08 PM..
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  #6  
Old 04-02-2008, 08:32 PM
jovan jovan is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sycorax
I did some research online and nothing I found mentioned MSG except as an additive to which some people are allergic. My impression (from online searching) was that MSG is a flavor enhancer and not the same as the very large amounts of sodium. So what's the difference?
MSG is often referred to as a "flavour enhancer", but salt, sugar and vinegar never get called that way despite the fact that they all work in more or less the same way. What we call "taste" is really a combination of gustative and olfactory sensations. There are only a small number of chemical families to which your tongue is sensitive -- these correspond to the traditional basic "tastes": sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savoury. The last one is easily the most overlooked in western cooking but it is an important concept in east Asian cooking. So much so that it's often referred to by its Japanese name: umami.

The savoury taste is a reaction to glutamates. These compounds are found mostly in food like meat, cheese, seaweed and mushrooms. While people have been using salt and sugar that is close to pure for a long time, it is only recently that a pure form of glutamate has been synthesized: MSG. For some reason, many people have averse reactions to MSG added to food despite glutamates being naturally occurring in many common products. I suspect this might have something to do with the rather generous quantities used by some cooks. Because umami still doesn't have the place in western cooking it does in Asian cooking, I think many westerners aren't able to identify it the way they know something sweet or salty. However, after several years in Asia, I definitely perceive umami as a distinct taste, not as a "flavour enhancer".

Food that is perceived as "bland" is often lacking in those basic taste and adding sugar, salt or MSG is an easy (or lazy) way to punch up a dish. That's probably why you find American Chinese so salty: adding more salt, or MSG, is an easy way to make up for lacking flavour. This isn't specific to Chinese food of course: the reason you can't stop eating those tortilla chips is because they're covered in salt. From my limited experience, I find that most cheap restaurant food in America is way, way too salty.

For the record, traditional Chinese cooking identifies five basic flavours: sweet, salty, bitter, spicy and sour. A good dish is one in which those flavours are in harmony, with no single one prevailing on the others. This is where you get the famous "sweet-and-sour": opposites balancing each other out. Really good Chinese food shouldn't be overly salty or sweet or savoury but all of these things at the same time.
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Old 04-02-2008, 09:02 PM
Winston Smith Winston Smith is offline
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I was watching an History Channel documentary about Chinese settlement of the United States (I'm home recovering from knee surgery and indulging myself with too much TV). They said American Chinese food was "invented" here by Chinese immigrants for Americans who wanted "Chinese flavor" - soy sauce. So, the whole cuisine is founded on salty noodles. No cite/site/link, sorry.
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Old 04-02-2008, 09:22 PM
treis treis is offline
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I was in China for 3 months and I didn't see much that even resembled American Chinese food, let alone dishes that were the same. American Chinese food is essentially fast food. It has a lot of salt in it for the same reason other fast food does. It's a cheap and easy way of adding a lot of flavor to dishes, and it helps preserve things.
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Old 04-03-2008, 09:20 PM
Sycorax Sycorax is offline
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I've read (various online sources) that fats are not usually a problem -- that vegetable oils are used, and it's less of a problem if you don't get the fried stuff (e.g., General Tso's chicken), and get stir fried chicken and seafood dishes. I'm a regular customer at my local carryout place, so I'm going to ask about eliminating salt. Thanks everyone for the input.
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Old 04-03-2008, 09:30 PM
Lizard Lizard is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sycorax
I've read (various online sources) that fats are not usually a problem -- that vegetable oils are used, and it's less of a problem if you don't get the fried stuff (e.g., General Tso's chicken), and get stir fried chicken and seafood dishes. I'm a regular customer at my local carryout place, so I'm going to ask about eliminating salt. Thanks everyone for the input.
From making my own stir-fry, I discovered that the vegetables and plain chicken I use really don't have a lot of flavor on their own. Soy sauce helps a lot, and because it's so salty, a little goes a long way. I also agree with treis; pretty much all American food, even at sit-down restaurants, is processed, over-salted, etc. You have to go to a pretty high-end place before they actually make food from scratch, or make it yourself.

Last edited by Lizard; 04-03-2008 at 09:31 PM..
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  #11  
Old 04-04-2008, 07:14 AM
Smid Smid is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sycorax
I love Chinese food; hubby likes it but not as much as I. I could live on the stuff. But neither hubby nor I want a lot of sodium in our diets, and (American) Chinese food has lots of it, especially soy sauce, but I don't use that. I can't find anything online that says WHY so much sodium is used. Do the Chinese use that much sodium, or do they think that Americans want it? (I realize American Chinese food is not the same as genuine Chinese food.) If no sodium is added, would that affect the flavors to a great extent? Will my local Chinese carryout use less (or no) sodium if I ask them?
Can I suggest that perhaps the reason why you love the food is because it has so much taste from msg/salt?
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  #12  
Old 04-04-2008, 12:54 PM
Cisco Cisco is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ltfire
It's MSG, a flavor enhancer.
You can say no MSG when you place your order and it won't be added.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium_glutamate
There's no way you could add enough to significantly increase the sodium content without ruining the dish. I once tasted some MSG raw - just a few crystals on the end of my finger - and it was the most powerful, odd, - - - - "pain" is not quite the right word but it's in the right neighborhood - - - - completely overpowering sensation. The container we have says to add something like 1/4 teaspoon per pound of meat.
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  #13  
Old 04-06-2008, 07:09 AM
slaphead slaphead is offline
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Originally Posted by treis
I didn't see much that even resembled American Chinese food, let alone dishes that were the same.
Indeed. I was expecting to encounter lots of things that just weren't eaten in the west - duck tongues or whatever. What I wasn't exepcting was for stuff that we eat to be prepared so differently - e.g. pork, chicken and duck just hacked up and served with all the bone/gristle still present. Or the fact that 'snot-like' is apparently an accepted food group.
So the 25-yuan bonegristle-pork, noodle & kimchi combo from the local Sino-McAlike next to our hotel in Beijing was actually really really nice. The extremely expensive Sea Cucumber and Fish Maw in the hotel restaurant in Shanghai, not so much . Ox sinew soup, deep-fried through-the-woodchipper duck, etc. were all nice but not something I pine for. All of it was totally new to me despite many many years of eating Chinese food in the UK at everything from 3.50 to 50 per meal.
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  #14  
Old 04-06-2008, 07:54 AM
Windwalker Windwalker is offline
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Normal, street-restaurant Chinese food here in Yunnan (and in my experiences in Sichuan and Guangxi) is typically saturated in oil and MSG, and often salt. If it's a spicy dish, it's usually filled with chili peppers, and if it's a Sichuan dish, it's replete with numbing peppers (I forget the English name), too. There are exceptions, obviously, and high-end stuff is different, but generally speaking, subtlety in flavor is not the norm.
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  #15  
Old 04-06-2008, 11:02 AM
Diogenes the Cynic Diogenes the Cynic is offline
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Quote:
For some reason, many people have averse reactions to MSG added to food despite glutamates being naturally occurring in many common products.
There's actually no scientific evidence to back this up. Purported adverse reactions appear to be completely anecdotal and do not show up in double blind tests. Basically, people who think they have bad reactions to MSG are imagining things. Having once worked in a Chinese restaurant, though, I know that many people are utterly convinced of their own delusions regarding MSG (or are convinced by the scaremongering about it), so I know it's difficult to persuade people that the dangers are imaginary.

Last edited by Diogenes the Cynic; 04-06-2008 at 11:03 AM..
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