Friday, June 29, 2007

The Hidden Killer

Last Saturday, because we found ourselves each in possession of a couple of extra Euros that would permit a very inexpensive restaurant meal, the dancer and I decided to try the new ramen joint next door to Cuchi, the superb sushi place on Gipsstr. After all, it was under the same management, and ramen can be a wonderful experience.

Sad to say, this place wasn't. My soup was pretty bare-bones. Although there was some pickled ginger in it, and, unlike the place we usually go, there were the right condiment-adding things (chili and black sesame, a sesame-seed grinder) on the table, it just wasn't very interesting. Hers was even weirder: although I don't think any tomato was involved, it was very much like a thin version of spaghetti bolognaise, with ground pork and a reddish broth. Both soups had corn in them, which didn't endear the place to me.

But about three-quarters of the way through her soup, the dancer suddenly pivoted on her butt and lay down. (Fortunately, as she noted later, we had benches; otherwise she would have fallen out of her chair). "It's my circulation," she said. "It's just dropped way down." She was sweating and pale. Now, I know that every medical crisis in Germany is "circulation," just as every medical crisis in France is "liver," but I had a more exact diagnosis: MSG poisoning. Hardly surprising, of course, because MSG is a crucial part of Japanese cuisine, the "fifth taste," umami, and something you expect to encounter. You do not, however, expect to pass out as a result of eating it.

Eventually, she sat up and sipped some water the solicitous waitress brought over, and found the strength to get up and leave. We walked around for a while so she could get her "circulation" back up, and finally got her to the U-Bahn, where she headed straight home and to bed. And, she reported the next morning, felt fine.

What happened wasn't a "drop in circulation," though, but a spike in blood-pressure. I have high blood pressure, so I try to minimize my MSG intake as best I can because it (and, of course, all other sodium, like salt) will raise your blood pressure. Certainly I've always been sensitive to MSG, and that night, I, too, had symptoms of muscles bunching up and a sort of caffeinated feeling, lying buzzing for a couple of hours before sleep came.

The thing is, though, although few people realize it, MSG is everywhere in Germany. It's not just in the fake "Asia" food, or even the authentic Asian food; it's found its way into German food so pervasively that I often avoid eating in German restaurants. I read labels of all prepared food products. It really is everywhere.

What I'm looking for in the supermarket is "Geschmackverstärker E 621," which is in just about every brand of canned soup (which are already hideously oversalted), in plenty of sausages (I no longer buy from butcher counters if I can't read the labels), in the formerly delicious smoked pork chops known as Kassler, in some brands of Maultaschen (those fantastic overstuffed pillows of pasta, one of my favorite discoveries in Germany), prepared chicken broth (Fond), and even in such weird places as black olives.

But at the restaurants, I'm helpless. What has happened over the past couple of decades is that restaurants have stopped making their own sauces, using cheats marketed by food giants like Maggi and Knorr. No doubt they cheated before with other prepared products, but both Maggi and Knorr base their entire product line on MSG, and their offering up condensed sauce bases that a good cook could make from scratch in a couple of hours has ruined German food. Nor can you assume that you're safe at a high-end restaurant: friends of mine report strong MSG reactions after eating in some of Berlin's toniest joints.

Germans are notorious for the amount of salt they consume. My doctor tells me that the numbers for high blood pressure are adjusted upwards in Germany, because numbers that would cause concern elsewhere are fairly normal here. And no wonder: from the Wurst you eat for breakfast to the Döner Kebap you have for lunch, to the schnitzel with gravy you have for dinner -- not to mention the Bratkartoffeln and green beans boiled with Speck you eat alongside it -- you're at the minimum getting a ton of salt, and almost always even more sodium courtesy of the MSG in all that stuff.

The folks at the Wurst counter don't know what's in the sausages -- and, worse, they won't go look -- and in restaurants you can't even assume the server will ask the cook, or, if they do, that they'll tell you the truth. Is it any wonder German food has the awful reputation is does? People go to a restaurant to eat something that sounds excellent on the page, and wind up dizzy or otherwise distressed afterwards.

Anyway, I'll continue to make occasional visits to the ramen place on Alte Schönhauser, fully aware of what's in the soup, but my desire to eat out elsewhere is always tinged with apprehension. I wonder if any of the other diners at this new place had a similar reaction, and, if so, how many will have to pass out before the owners decide it might be a good idea to cut the aiji-no-moto in half.


Dr. Sardonic said...

You're correct on all counts here. I had a Döner recently that almost gave me a stroke. And how ironic that at the same time EU-regs are threatening raw-milk cheeses, they're allowing MSG in sausage and Maultaschen. What's next, MSG in cheese? (I only hope I'm kidding.)

Meanwhile, I'll just repeat my highest of recommendations for Landkost (Yorckstr. 76): everything there tastes like it just arrived from the farm. His selection is quite limited, but includes some of the best cheese, best Wurst, and best bread (yes!) I've ever had in Germany — and it's right here in Berlin. Go ahead and ask Herr Neischwander if there's MSG in any of his products — just be prepared to get the Swabian hairy eye-ball.

Anonymous said...

This might explain my occasional (and unexpected) strange-food-reactions. But don't any half-decent supermarkets (that's those with a Wurst counter) usually have some kind of flip-chart on the top of the counter listing the ingredients? I've never looked in one, but I always seem to see them.

Anonymous said...

aha! i had just been wondering about the prevalence of MSG in these parts. I am not as sensitive to as some (or more likely it already makes up 15% of my body weight) but i don't like the idea of eating it if I can avoid it.

By the by I thought of you as i read a review of Michael Pollan's 'The Omnivore's Dilemna: A Natural History of Four Meals' wherein he describes the destructive empire of corn and the 'feedlotting' of the modern eating public...

Anonymous said...

Ach, the dreaded Kreislauf Maneuver! Takes me back to the early days here, when my girlfriends were always almost-fainting at the most inopportune moments.

Re: the sodiumania hereabouts: expect that in parts of the world where food is being sold to heavy smokers.

Me, I stopped eating in restaurants after the book/movie "Fight Club" became popular over here...

Anonymous said...

yes, that remind me of saying from old country: "Try rufee, not msg."

Eat more goat, you better.

Ed Ward said...

Dr Sardo: Landkost would be a great solution if a) I ate German all the time; b) it weren't half-way across town; and c) I could afford it -- and speak German to the owner's satisfaction.

K-M: I've never seen one of those flip-charts. Doubt they have one, even behind the counter, at my stupidmarket.

Steven: Sodium/smokers can be refuted by one word: France. Or, for that matter, Italy. Must say, I don't get the Fight Club reference, although I watched the movie. It bored me so badly, though, I don't remember much of it.

Bleistifterin said...

Interesting. Being German myself I never notice the amount of salt - lack of comparison. But then, I cook a lot for myself, and my friends always want more salt. My mom had a high blood pressure, guess she knew her diet.
When in the US, it's sugar for me: everything is way too sweet.

Bowleserised said...

I've had nothing but Kreislauf since I read this post.

Anonymous said...

would have commented sooner but was away in canada for a while, where i had this conversation about sodium with my dear ol' mother. She was all concerned about how much I was taking in, and couldn't fathom when I said I didn't worry about it. Why? We only buy fresh food and cook at home. No prepared meats, no phony sauces, no canned soups, nichts. For salt we use sea salt ground in a mill. We do go out to eat once in a while, but are usually disappointed. Could have made it just as well at home.