The Not-So-Secret Secret Ingredient To Roast Pork Noodle Soup

Zak and I were sitting with Kat, all of us with a bowl of roast pork noodle soup in front of us (well, Kat had noodles with minced up bok choy, finely minced roast pork and a bare dribble of soup in her bowl) and we were eating happily.

Zak looked up thoughtfully from his bowl and said tentatively, “You know, this is awesome–but there is something not perfect about the broth. It is missing something.”

Now, he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. The broth was excellent, very flavorful, meaty and rich, with great body and aroma. It was a dark golden color from the soy sauce and Shao Hsing wine and the drizzle of toasted sesame oil gave it just the perfect tinge of nutty smokiness.

But still, there was something missing.

It wasn’t sugar–there was just enough in it to enhance the pork and bok choy flavors without making it taste like “candy soup,” which has a definitely unappetizing sound to it. It wasn’t lack of white pepper, nor was it that the stock was too weak–the main flavor was meat.

Zak and I talked about it while we each offered Kat spoonsful of broth from our own bowls to slurp. He said, quite clearly as he took another sip, “It has something to do with the meat flavor–it is almost right, but not quite.”

I finally stood up and sighed. “I bet I know exactly what it is,” I stated, as I strode purposefully to the kitchen, opening the spice cabinet. I plucked out a jar I have had for ever, but which I have never opened.

I carried it back to Zak and cracked it open. Over my bowl of broth, now swept clean of noodles, pork and greens, I sprinkled a few grains of sparkling crystalline white powder.

“What’s that?” Zak asked.

“MSG,” I said. I handed him the jar, and said, “I kind of wondered when I was cooking this if I shouldn’t add some, but it goes against my nature to do it. I thought about using Chinese black mushrooms or kelp to get enough glutamates in the broth, but they both have their own flavors which come along for the ride, which would clash with this dish.”

He sprinkled a few grains into his bowl, stirred it and took a sip. The umami flavor which had been missing–that meatiness, that savory component–it had arrived.

His eyes lit up. “It is almost like a whole new broth. You are right. It’s perfect.”

I tasted mine. He was right. The broth was taken to another level: it was meaty and savory and wonderful, with all of the natural flavors enhanced perfectly. That was the not-so-secret secret ingredient to make my soup taste just like the ones from our favorite noodle shops. A little tiny sprinkle of MSG. It is amazing how little was needed to add that last bit of oomph.ZZ

So, what do I suggest you do if you want to recreate this recipe?

Well, if you are opposed to MSG as an ingredient, or are sensitive to its effects, I suggest you just do without. In truth, the soup tasted plenty wonderful without it, such that Zak kept repeating as he ate his first bowl of it, “I love you, I love you. Oh, I love you.”

So, the soup was fine, really.

But, if you want it to taste just like you remember from some noodle shop somewhere, wait until you have poured the hot soup over the noodles, pork and greens in a bowl. Then, sprinkle a few grains of MSG, known in Japanese as Aji-no-moto, over the broth and give it a stir with a chopstick. I am of the opinion that it is easier for you to season it by the serving than by the potful–it would be too easy to end up using too much MSG if you try to season several quarts of soup broth at a time.

Remember, you want to use as little MSG as possible if you use it at all. If you overuse it, instead of enhancing the flavor of your food, it will flatten it out and make it one dimensional. And you might end up unintentionally giving your guests a headache.

And if you don’t want to use it–that is fine, too. Your soup will still be good without it.

For thoughts on MSG and health, check out my earlier posts:Let’s Talk About MSG and More on MSG and Glutamates


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  1. Have you ever tried sprinkling dashi powder in place of MSG? I usually do that, as I don’t normally stock MSG. It has the same umami characteristics.

    Comment by Steamy Kitchen — September 7, 2007 #

  2. Man, I’m torn between my wariness of possibly creepy food additives and my interest in things that taste good!

    Comment by Jim — September 7, 2007 #

  3. Dashi is the new MSG. Most Chinese I know have switched over a while ago and many Asian restaurants I know use it too.

    Comment by Anne — September 7, 2007 #

  4. Jaden–I am going to try that! I have some instant dashi here–is that what you mean?

    That would make me happy, because I really didn’t like using the MSG–even though it was barely even a pinch, I still wasn’t thrilled with the idea of it.

    Jim–try it with the dashi!

    Anne–thanks for the heads-up. I never used MSG in any of my food before–and the restaurant where I worked never did either. But I had bought some to experiment with, so it was in the house.

    I didn’t even think to use the instant dashi.

    Comment by Barbara — September 7, 2007 #

  5. Hi Barbara – You do know that usually the second or third ingredient listed for Hon-Dashi is MSG, right? No wonder everything it’s added to tastes so good….it’s always in my pantry.

    Comment by Kirk — September 8, 2007 #

  6. Another one of those areas of food science where you don’t know what to believe. I’ve personally never had any adverse reactions from MSG,and I’m sure I’ve eaten plenty of it in Chinese food and other things. I did take a Chinese cooking class once years ago and they recommended putting aji-no-moto (sic?) in everything. We were told it was natural MSG and that only the synthetic kind is harmful, but I don’t know if there is anything to that claim.

    Comment by Kalyn — September 8, 2007 #

  7. You know, Kirk–I realized that as I read about using dashi powder online–and read about a lot of Japanese cooks decrying the MSG in it.

    Which made me go get my jar of hon-dashi and actually look at the ingredients. Hrm. MSG is right there, like you said.


    And it does still have its very own rather fishy scent–which I wonder about using in the pork chicken broth–would that oceanic fragrance get into the broth and clash with it?

    Whereas pure MSG–used in the tiniest quantity doesn’t add its own flavor at all, but enhances what is there.


    Kalyn–I can tell you from my perspective, a molecule of monosodium glutamate derived from chemical processes in a lab, and a molecule of MSG derived from chemical processes in a lab from kelp–they are exactly the same. Physically and chemically speaking, they are the same stuff, whether they are constructed in the lab or isolated from a natural substance. I have had this drilled into my head from a young age on because my father, grandfather, and ex-father-in-law all worked for Union Carbide, and I look lots of chemistry in college.

    A monosodium glutamate molecule is the same no matter where it comes from. It will have the same effect (or not) on the flavor of a dish and on a diner’s metabolism no matter its origin.

    I have never used MSG in any of my Chinese recipes until I put that bare pinch of it in the bowl of soup–and I have never noticed the lack of it. Nor have I used dashi as a replacement.

    The restaurant I used to work in and where I had lots of contact with Chinese chefs didn’t use msg, either–nor did they use dashi. According to the chefs there, it is not necessary, and if you are not used to using it for flavor, you will not miss it.

    I am finding this thread of discussion very interesting, though. Because I have often wondered about the use of MSG in restaurant foods–and I was amazed to note the flavor change in the broth with such a small amount, so quickly.

    And neither Zak nor I had a physical effect from it. I suspect that we has eaten more MSG in theatre popcorn during the course of a typical ninety minute movie than ee got in those bowls of soup.

    Comment by Barbara — September 8, 2007 #

  8. Thanks for that popcorn link. They provide it for free at my work and I am trying to get them to provide something better. Hopefully realizing it could be terrible for us, and not just for the factory workers, will do it.

    Comment by Alexis — September 8, 2007 #

  9. We had the same aji-no-moto bottle at the table growing up… I often feel like something is missing because I think my cherished childhood memories of how food should taste all include it! I have one friend whose secret ingredient in everything is fish sauce, and I will often add a tiny bit of anchovy paste to add an extra kick to things.

    Comment by foodhoe — September 9, 2007 #

  10. How about hitting your umami notes by adding a squirt of fish sauce? I can take MSG in small quantities but will actually break out in a rash and get headaches if I ingest too much.

    Comment by Wandering Chopsticks — September 9, 2007 #

  11. The best part of the original post, for me, was that an experiment was performed. A situation needed to be changed, ideas were considered, and an experiment provided an answer.

    This is much better than blindly following the advice of others; maybe it’s right and maybe it’s not, but with a test you actually know.

    I use MSG all the time, mostly through the ubiquitous fish sauce, but also as a substance all by itself. It takes very little, a few crystals, to alter a dish for the better. Some of the recipes in the past called for teaspoons full of the stuff; no wonder people got headaches.

    It really is dandy stuff if used in moderation, and the world is full of tasty foods that are full of glutamates already. If you find it to be a useful addition to food, fine.

    Comment by William Atherton-Powell — September 9, 2007 #

  12. Hi Barbara –

    In terms of the seasoning of MSG before or after, it’s a pretty essential ingredient in my mom’s kitchen in regards to making any broth. I think the “oomph” you’re talking about doesn’t take that much MSG to accomplish, in a HUGE stockpot I’ve seen my mom put in no more than two teaspoons of it and it just adds enough to the broth to give that enhancement that your husband is talking about. Just an observation I’ve seen, and she’s been making broths for Vietnamese/Chinese noodle dishes for years. Maybe try that next time when you make a pot of broth? Since it’s so little that’s going in compared to the amount of stock in the pot, I doubt there would be side effects unless there was someone who couldn’t outright eat it. So far in 20 years, I haven’t seen anyone sick from my mom’s methods :).

    And in reading your Vietnamese recipes, I was wondering where you taking reference from or if it was a regional difference in how the dishes are prepared, namely the pho. I’m assuming the parsnips were your own personal touch (I prefer the rock sugar myself), but the fish sauce is what’s leaving me at a loss, since I’ve never seen it as a flavoring component for pho, much less most Vietnamese broths.

    Comment by Sophia — September 9, 2007 #

  13. The fish sauce in my pho recipe came from the chefs My Pham and Nicole Routhier. Both were born and raised in Vietnam (My Pham was also partially raised in Thailand) and are of Vietnamese ethnicity.

    Routhier’s recipe is also where I came up with the parsnips; she says it was her mother’s addition.

    Now, other authors I have since read, Diana My Tran and Corrine Trang, do not use fish sauce in their pho.

    There are two reasons I can think of for this. One, is that it is a regional variant. Or, two: the former two authors are both chefs who own restaurants, and the other two authors are as I recall, home cooks. This may be a difference between restaurant food and home food. I don’t honestly know. All I know, is when I was asked to teach a class on pho, I had to figure out how it was made, and so I turned to recipes from cookbooks and the internet, and from asking around at the restaurants where I ate. (The restaurant where I ate pho was run by a Thai-Vietnamese family–so the fish sauce may also have some Thai influence on the recipe, now that I think of it. But they told me to use fish sauce, too.)

    So that is where I got the fish sauce and the parsnips.

    As for the MSG–I think what I will do in general is leave it out to be added at the table by those who wish it. I generally think it is safe, but I never know who may or may not react badly to it as an ingredient, so I will leave it out. I think that your mother’s judicious use of it is the way to go, though, and if I am cooking just for my immediate family, I would probably do as you suggest.

    As for using fish sauce, kombu or black mushrooms or any other food source of umami–I think I will not do that for this recipe. I will put fish sauce in a great many different foods, including American style stews and soups, but only when they are strongly enough flavored to hide the fish flavor.

    This particular stock is fairly delicate in flavor–and I am pretty certain that the fish sauce, mushrooms or kelp would show up in the flavor profile if I used them–which is why I didn’t do it in the first place.

    Comment by Barbara — September 10, 2007 #

  14. I also save my black mushroom soaking water and add that to broths that need that extra kick.

    Well, no wonder why I like instant dashi powder! I never bothered to look at the ingredients. My fav is to boil edamame in dashi broth and ALSO to sprinkle some on like salt on top after drained.

    Oh well…I think I’m immune to MSG by now.

    Comment by Steamy Kitchen — September 12, 2007 #

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