Know MSG?

Yeah you know me

A newsletter about branding, startups, and mission-driven companies aiming to make the world a better place.

👋 Welcome to For The Love, I’m so happy to have you all here! A quick note — I’m taking the next two weeks off to relax, bask in the glow of my Hanukkah candles and Christmas tree, and eat too many cookies. 

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, and I’ll see you in 2021! I encourage you to take a well-earned End of 2020 recharge as well. 

Today we’ll be discussing:

  • How two brands are redefining Asian cuisine in America

  • A roundup of new launches this week, including the ultimate ‘90s collab

  • A COVID test that’s anything but nosy

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⚡ For The Love of Branding 

In 1907 a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, discovered and extracted the source of that umami flavor you know and love in foods like tomatoes and parmesan cheese. 

Known in many parts of the world as “Aji no Moto,” or Essence of Taste, you’re probably more familiar with its other name — MSG. 

Since then, it’s been used to flavor everything from soup to salad dressing, and even the blockbuster Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich.

But when it’s in Asian food? That’s a different story.

In a 2016 episode of “Parts Unknown,” while traveling in China, Anthony Bourdain said:

"I think (MSG) is good stuff, I don't react to it — nobody does. It's a lie."

And added, "you know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome?"

"Racism."

The idea of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” arose from an article published in 1968 in the New England Journal of Medicine where a doctor complained about “radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants.” After reader responses attested to the same feeling, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born. 

According to the Mayo Clinic “researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms.” 

So if there’s no real evidence of this “Syndrome,” why does the idea persist?

Well, Anthony Bourdain was probably not wrong.

FiveThirtyEight’s article, “How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia,” explains:

“That MSG causes health problems may have thrived on racially charged biases from the outset. Ian Mosby, a food historian, wrote in a 2009 paper titled “‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980” that fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the U.S.’s long history of viewing the ‘exotic’ cuisine of Asia as dangerous or dirty.”

Sadly, racist views towards Asians came clearly into view with the onset of the Coronavirus.

Earlier this year, Jing Gao, founder of Fly By Jing, a line of sauces and spices crafted in Sichuan, wrote of her early quarantine experience:

“Increased tensions rose from xenophobia, trade relations soured, and overtly racist comments started popping up on our social media pages. ‘We don’t need anything else from China right now’ ‘What’s this made of? Bats?’ Production ground to a halt in China. I braced myself for dark times ahead.”

But instead of discouraging her, this time actually helped Jing embrace her heritage. She started going by her given name, Jing, instead of Jenny (which she had used for 25 years, during her multi-national upbringing), and updated Fly By Jing’s branding to better represent how personal this was to her.

She told me “the reward was finding my personal power and reclaiming my personal power — culminating in this rebrand.”

With Fly By Jing, she set out to make “flavors accessible to everyone,” and also to shift the previously held definition of what constitutes Chinese food. 

“People are really connected to our mission of celebrating these diverse voices in the diaspora. And that we're ready for a new paradigm about Chinese food — that for centuries has been painted as dirty, cheap, and unhealthy. But that's really rooted in a lot of prejudice and bias. And so we're just working to shift people's perspective, through our flavors and our food.”

This approach is mirrored in her recent re-brand featuring vibrant colors and a modern design with thoughtful details — it’s reflective of the bold flavors found in her sauces, the quality of their ingredients, and also her personal journey.

In the first iteration of the brand, Jing’s goal was to “stop someone in their tracks, and have them think twice about why they expected a Chinese sauce to look different...having people question their own biases, because we all have our internal biases, and we expect Chinese to look a certain way, and to cost a certain amount.”

But she realized she wanted the branding to encompass more. 

“As we evolved, we realized that we're so much more rich, and there's such depth to our story. And there's something really personal there that I think people can connect to, and you don't often see brands being so open and vulnerable. And so we decided to have the branding evolve to match where we were at. And to catch up to who we are and the quality of our products, because the previous one felt more aesthetic only, whereas this, this has meaning.” 

“It allows you to engage with it at the level that you would like, you could just like it as a hot sauce that you put on pizza, or you can find a sense of self and identity and belonging.”

Part of this personal approach, and moving away from the expectation of what Chinese food or flavors should be, is rejecting labels like “authentic” or “traditional.”  

Jing explained:

“We don't talk about authenticity, or tradition, because we feel like those are actually pretty oppressive, because we are holding people and others to a certain standard that we have in our minds, which doesn't allow a culture or a people to evolve. And so we talk about how this brand and the flavors are just personal because they didn't exist before I made it.”

Omsom, a line of Asian flavors, also avoids this type of categorization. 

Co-founder Kim Pham believes that this line of thinking “purports that there's only one way for any of these dishes to exist. And I think that's frankly, a burden that only food of color has to bear.” 

“Sometimes traditional is used in terms of ingredients we source 90% of our ingredients from Asia, directly from the countries of which the dishes are rooted, but we're never trying to say this is the one way to have Sisig. We make it all about our tastemaker (that's what we call our chef partners)...They have cut their teeth in these flavors, they grew up in them, and they are at the forefront in terms of thinking how modern Filipino, modern Thai, modern Vietnamese, shows up in this world. But they're not purporting to say it's the only way. If anything, our format enables folks to experiment, and hopefully empowers them to bring it into their homes and hopefully into their lives in a real way.”

Omsom was born from the desire to overhaul the “ethnic food” aisle — where the flavors are diluted, the ingredients subpar.

The aisle is “usually in the back of the store. It's kind of forgotten, representative of how this country perhaps has seen immigrant communities as part of the country's fabric. And we think that's a really outdated, and frankly, shitty view of BIPOC communities and our place at the modern American dining table,” Kim explained.

The Omsom brand is anything but hidden — their motto is “loud and proud,” which you’d know from the packaging alone.

Or, if you know Vietnamese, from the name — it means noisy, and rambunctious, and was a word the founders heard regularly from their parents growing up. Kim told me:

“Omsom was really born to reclaim the multitudes in not just our cuisines, but also our communities and do it in a way that is proud and loud...for so long Asian Americana has been seen as a quiet, submissive model minority. And we want to give a middle finger to all that.”

Their branding is bright and bold, and in-your-face with oversized, calligraphy inspired letters, and vibrant, saturated colors. It’s modern but rooted in Asian culture. 

“I'd say something a touch more nuanced is that we wanted it to feel Asian, but not in the way that products in that ‘ethnic’ aisle currently, signal Asian. Right now, a lot of those products have the bamboo font or dragons and pandas, stereotypical shitty reductionist, but we still do want to pay homage to our Asian roots, particularly Southeast Asian roots. So the colors that you see are actually rooted in Southeast Asian fruits. So that Maroon is actually banana flour…we have a mint, we have tofu, all small nods that if you know, you know...But you might still, even if you're not Asian at all, look at this brand and feel like there's something in this that signals Asian, but it's not the traditional markers that have been beaten into my head about what is Asian design.”

Omsom is clearly personal to the founders, and their journey as first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, and daughters of refugees. They also highlight each tastemaker’s story, who they work alongside to develop flavors.

“You're seeing a lot of a dialogue happening around appropriation, like who gets to be an expert in food. I think for so long that wasn't examined deeply. It was kind of like, oh, someone spent six months in Thailand and is now the authority on Thai food. And we just fundamentally don't believe that, you know, even us as Vietnamese women, we cannot purport to tell people how to eat Filipino food. We cannot tell people how to eat Korean food. And so it was super important that we involve iconic POC either immigrant or first-gen chefs, very much like us, at every step of the process.”

Their newest partnership is with Pepper Thai, “culinary enthusiast, grandma, and mom of Chrissy Teigen,” breaking down the most pervasively biased Asian ingredient of them all.

You guessed it — MSG.

Kim said, “growing up, my mom actually cooked with MSG quite a lot. But she was so ashamed of it because of the stigma and xenophobia, so she hid it.” 

She didn’t actually know it was a part of some of her favorite dishes until later in life, and then became very vocal about it being a “safe, super delicious ingredient.”

“We don't shy away from education, not just around MSG, but also how Asian food shouldn’t be perceived only as cheap. We also talk about how we view authority in food and food media...hopefully, through our brand, through the packaging, through the excitement that we've built around the products already, we can start to chip away at some of that.”

Both Omsom and Fly By Jing are redefining modern Asian food, through bold flavors and branding to match. They are both rebellious and celebratory, but their strength is in their differences — the founders highlighting their own personal journeys and how food has influenced them. 

By integrating their unique narratives so deeply into the brand, they’re connecting with those that have similar backgrounds and enlightening those that don’t. 

And for everyone — making really, really good flavors.


🔥 For The Love of Newness

Moonshot snacks are a new line of organic crackers with ingredients sourced from farms that practice regenerative agriculture (aka much better for the environment).

Parade x Juicy dropped this week — sending every Millennial that loved Paris Hilton then, and every Gen Z that loves Paris Hilton now to the checkout. 

With another restaurant closure looming in NY, it’s a good time to re-up on puzzles — Different Puzzles are 1000 (or 500) pieces of offbeat fun, and available for pre-order.


💡 For The Love of Interestingness

If being an early hire at a startup is on your to-do list for 2021, On Deck just launched the First 50 Fellowship —apply now to join the program and find your dream startup job.


🔍 For The Love of the Details

From the people who brought you Snapple Obvious, the beverage line with things under the cap you already knew, comes the newest in Coronavirus testing...

A Not-So-Nosy COVID-19 test complete with a face diagram of which hole in your face they’re going to stick something in, just in case you’re not sure what that joke means.

Not-So-Nosy.

Get it?

Get it?

Do they poke you in the side before they get you in the mouth?

Find a testing site? 

Isn’t it the mouth? You just told me it was the mouth, no?

Their site comes with lots of handy iconography:

If you have this many purple mouth sores, then you have a different disease and we can’t help you.

Do not pour one out for lost loved ones.

Do not drink your infected spit.

This is the “Fastest Test West of The Mississippi,” since all they’re really doing is sending it to hot spots and telling people, “Ya’ll got this.”

No, seriously, ya’ll have the ‘Rona. Go back to your houses.

If you do decide to venture in…

If you can’t sing the alphabet song when the suggestion is made, is stringing all the letters together in a row going to help?

“Oh…THAT alphabet. I see.”

Is there a Cyrillic alphabet song? Is there an industrial remix version of it, because I believe that might be what my husband listens to when he works out.

Don’t forget to infect the nearest conservative dresser with dated style with hazardous material on your way out:

Thank you for being part of For The Love! 


A few more things...

Is there a topic you think I should cover? Or a funny ad I can dissect? I’d love to hear from you! You can email me at info@ajasinger.com, respond to this email, or drop it in the comments ⬇

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Written by Aja Singer, a brand and creative strategy consultant interested in all things startup, mission-driven, and community. Born in Canada. Based in Brooklyn. You can also find me on Instagram and Twitter.