Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

Come Chinese New Year, many Chinese and  non-Chinese alike will be celebrating with friends and family in restaurants or hotels.  Yet, have you ever come home from an elaborate meal at an exclusive Chinese restaurant with a headache, heartburn, sweating or a feeling that your face is swollen?

Some people say that they feel a tingling in their faces or a burning sensation on the back of the neck, chest, shoulders, abdomen, thighs, and forearms.

Although there have been never been any fatalities reported with these symptoms, they cause considerable discomfort for the next 2 to 3 hours. This is called the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS), which occurs in some people after they eat foods containing the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) – a common ingredient in Chinese food. CRS is also known as MSG allergy or MSG symptom complex.

Although CRS is not a universally recognized medical condition, and only happens to a small minority, caution must be exercised by individuals with a known allergy to MSG. But is MSG the only cause of CRS?

 

WOK’S COOKING?

CRS was first highlighted in a 1968 report in the New England Journal of Medicine. The author of the report, Dr. Kwok, described how affected persons would start experiencing the unpleasant reactions 15 to 30 minutes after having a Chinese meal, which would spontaneously resolve after 2 hours.

Realising that these symptoms were similar to acetylsalicylic acid or aspirin hypersensitivity, he suggested that certain common ingredients in Chinese cuisine were responsible for the symptoms, namely salt, alcohol and MSG.

Since then, much more research has been done on CRS, although none have been conclusive due to the fact that no fatalities have been reported so far. Further observations noted that adverse reactions to MSG are more prevalent in people who lack Vitamin B, suggesting that CRS is in fact a manifestation of vitamin B6 deficiency and CRS is more likely to happen to people who eat foods containing MSG on an empty stomach, increasing the amount of MSG being absorbed into the bloodstream.

A recent research suggests that it is not the MSG that is causing all the trouble, but a mold that grows in the big fermentation vessels used in the production of MSG. This mold is present in minute amounts, but is potent enough to create the symptoms associated with CRS.

 

WHAT IS MSG MADE OF?

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a sodium salt of the amino acid glutamic acid. MSG is usually made from fermented sugar beet or sugar cane molasses.

Despite the fact that it does not have a distinct taste of its own, MSG became a staple ingredient not only in Chinese cuisine but also in seasonings, snack foods, instant soups and other foods.

Although it has long been known that our tongue has four basic tastes- sweet, sour, salty and bitter- there is now an additional taste called ‘umami’, which is a non-descript savoury taste found in certain foods such as tomatoes, seafood and some vegetables. Researchers have found that food seasoned with MSG stimulates the ‘umami’ taste receptors on our tongue, thus enhancing the flavour of the food or dish.

Sometimes used as a preservative and other times as a flavour enhancer, it is the second most used ingredient in foods, after salt.  Although many health-conscious people these days are lowering their use of MSG usage, with some restaurants even declaring themselves MSG-free, MSG is difficult to avoid, as it is sometimes disguised as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, textured vegetable protein, gelatin, yeast extract, calcium and sodium caseinate, vegetable broth, whey, smoke flavoring, or malt extract.

 

SAFE CHINESE CHOW

Although the United States Of America’s Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) classifies MSG as “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS), it is undeniable that foods containing high levels of MSG does tend to create uncomfortable symptoms.

Several alternatives to MSG has been suggested, such as adding sugar, spices or foods that are naturally rich in MSG such as tomatoes and mushrooms.

Many restaurants will be able to accommodate your request for a low-salt, low-MSG meal so that you can lower your risk of getting CRS. Don’t be afraid to ask when you make your booking!

 

SAYING IT WITH FOOD

Food is an important aspect of Chinese culture. This is doubly so during the Chinese New Year season, an auspicious time when many of the foods served have names that sound like a character with a lucky meaning.

Sometimes the symbolism may not lie in the name but in their colour or shape. The more popular festive foods are the ones that successfully represent happiness, prosperity luck or fortune.

Some of them, such as chicken, leafy green vegetables, fish and noodles are served whole to represent family unity. In the olden days in China, food was hard to come by and Chinese New Year was the time of year when a whole pig, duck, chicken or fish was served at dinner.

Fish, in particular, bears special meaning because its Chinese character is written in a way to represent ‘more than enough’, symbolizing that the family will always enjoy abundance. This has brought about the relatively new culture of having ‘lou sang’ (tossing the dish) parties where ‘yee sang’ (thinly sliced fresh fish) is served.

So before you head to the stores for your Chinese New Year shopping, we uncover some symbolisms behind some foods to guide you along:

  • Noodles– longevity
  • Oysters (hao)- happy events expected
  • Lettuce (sang choi)- prosperity
  • Dumplings– wealth and fortune
  • Fish– togetherness and abundance
  • Dried air moss (fatt choy)- good fortune
  • Egg or spring rolls– wealth and prosperity
  • Dried Bean Curd – happiness
  • Chicken – happiness and marriage
  • Eggs – fertility
  • Lychee nuts – close family ties
  • Oranges/ tangerines (kam) – wealth
  • Peanuts – a long life
  • Pomelo – abundance, prosperity, having children
  • Seeds (lotus or watermelon) – having a large number of children
  • Tray of Togetherness: Many families keep a tray full of dried fruits, sweets, and candies to welcome guests and relatives who drop by.  Traditionally, it was made up of eight compartments, each of which was filled with foods such as an assortment of snacks and seeds.

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