Seeking Solace in Szechuan

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Seeking Solace in Szechuan

I

take my seat on a wobbly stool just before the show begins. Around me, strays mingle with street urchins, taking turns to watch me with hungry eyes, hoping I show some charity or moral character and throw them the proverbial bone. Joining me also is an audience of college-goers, nine-to-five corporate ladder climbers, cops, alcoholics, and others who’ve hit the bud just like myself.

We’ve gathered here for a ringside seat to a spectacle that plays out every evening. The Dragon Chines Cornar (Dragon Chinese Corner is what they mean) lies a few metres from my house. It is home to Tarunesh, my dealer, and Bobby, his bungling assistant. On weekends, I find myself seated in front of the duo twice a day for my daily fix.

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The show begins, the audience watch in rapt attention. It is, in essence, metal making sweet love to metal, as a ladle and a wok, bump and grind into one another repeatedly, swaying rhythmically as if, in the throes of passion, building to a crescendo, the onlookers watching in rapt attention. The love child of this torrid, steamy affair is presented to me on a flimsy, plastic plate, scalding hot and begging to be eaten. I put a spoonful of hot triple Szechuan rice into my mouth, bits of angry red noodles clinging onto my beard, as each painfully hot spoon of food is followed up by another. Screw the pain; my drug-addled brain seems fixated on the blend of hot, sour, sweet, and umami. I get my dose, stumble home and pass out.

Today was a good day. Tomorrow, I promise I will give up.

***

I am addicted to Chinese food. It is the way I cope with job stress and the drudgery and buggery of everyday life. It is an addiction I supplement with a smidge of weed, sip of alcohol, and a cigarette. Now there’s far worse stuff I could’ve been addicted to, but I choose to seek solace in Szechuan.

I ask myself what makes this plethora of fried rice, hakka noodles, chicken lollipops, Manchurian, Szechuan sauce, Chinese bhel, and various other permutations and combinations involving Indianised “Chinese” food so appealing to me that I often follow up dinner at home by sneaking out for half a plate of fried rice or noodles? The nutritional value of this food lies somewhere between cardboard and water. Also, (and this is embarrassing), I’m a professional cook. I can be anal about how to julienne carrots and get into a fist fight on the techniques of a perfect consommé. I can whip up authentic Lo Mein and Char Sui at the drop of a hat but when it comes to this MSG-laden crap, I fall on my knees and beg the Nepali cook to just give me my fix.

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The patrons watch as metal makes sweet love to metal, as a ladle and a wok, bump and grind into one another repeatedly, swaying rhythmically as if, in the throes of passion.

Damian D’souza/ Arré

MSG. Not the B-grade movie starring Anil Kapoor’s partner in body hair crime, but the white, powdered stuff that looks like meth and tastes like rainbows and unicorns.Monosodium glutamate, Ajinomoto, Chinese seasoning powder, this substance has many monikers. What it does though is amazeballs.

The popularity of MSG hinges on what it literally brings to the table, umami aka delicious meaty goodness – the fifth taste after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. This one trumps all simply because it balances and rounds off the perception of all other tastes and flavours present in food. This combined with the fact that you need just one gramme per 100 millilitre for MSG to work its magic, makes it an ideal candidate to deliver an explosion of flavours in an instant.

But what a punch that one molecule delivers. Glutamate and GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) are brain neurotransmitters. Our bodies have a chemical feedback loop to make sure that these two always balance each other out. GABA is created when excess glutamate is present in our bodies. It counteracts MSG and other glutamates and has a calming effect. It stimulates the same neuroreceptors as Valium. It’s no wonder that you reach for that bowl of Chinese when you’re low – you’re basically giving into Valium covered in Szechuan sauce.

MSG gets a bad rap for its perceived nastiness just because a doctor in the United States back in the 1970s conducted a study after noticing that his friends and he suffered from headaches, nausea, palpitation, increased salivation, and profuse sweating after eating at Chinese restaurants. He zeroed in on Ajinomoto (literal meaning, the essence of taste) as a possible cause and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was born.

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The popularity of MSG hinges on what it literally brings to the table, umami aka delicious meaty goodness – the fifth taste after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

Damian D’souza/ Arré

If you’re thinking right now, “Hey, my favourite restaurant doesn’t use MSG”, listen carefully when I say this: The entire roadside Chinese food industry and even some respectable high-end restaurants owe their existence to MSG. If by some sheer stroke of lunacy, the government decides to ban MSG (entirely possible, we all know what happened to Maggi) or worse, classify it as a controlled substance, almost every eatery would be up shit creek without a paddle or even a boat for that matter. But don’t gasp just yet. Here’s a fun fact about our FDA – it lacks the gear to test for artificially added MSG.

But hold on. Don’t flip your plate of noodles just yet. MSG isn’t lethal, unless of course you feel compelled to eat a sackful of it at one go. In small doses it’s no more harmful than table salt if you’re not one of those afflicted with the Chinese Restaurant Symptom.  I’m not. So come to me when someone uncovers solid evidence that my Chinese addiction is gonna kill me and I’ll consider giving it up.

Until then I’ll be sitting on Tarunesh’s wobbly stool with a hot steaming plate of triple Szechuan fried rice gripped in my shaking hands.

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