We're going to Japan in August and I'm a little worried about eating out. I can get a migraines from MSG and someone told me that it's still widely used in Japan. If I contact a restaurant to ask about the ingredients and prep, will I be commiting a breach of etiquette? Can anyone recommend an english language web site or guide that could help us plan some meals? We'll be in Tokyo, Yokohama and maybe the west coast.
MSG is pretty hard to avoid in Japanese food, since it occurs naturally in many commonly used ingredients and seasonings like kombu (seaweed) and soy sauce. (Tokyo's Italian restaurants won't be much better, since MSG is a big part of Parmesan and other cheeses, tomatoes and mushrooms.)
For that reason I don't think it would do much good contacting restaurants, even if they understood what you were talking about, since MSG is such an integral part of Japanese cuisine.
Here's an interesting article from the Guardian about the use of MSG in Japanese food:
re: Robb S
Most Japanese don't know what MSG is so if you want to ask a restaurant, you may have to say like "Do you use MSG, an additive/seasoning like Ajinomoto (or maybe amino acid)?" (Younger people may not even know what Ajinomoto is except for the company and a variety of other food products it makes, which contains MSG.) Then they would say "No, we don't use Ajinomoto." But gultamate is in kombu, katsuo bushi and soy sauce, so of course, their dishes will contain gultamate! To avoid kombu, katsuo bushi and soy sauce, your food selection will be severely limited--almost impossible IMO.
This site has some good tips--"MSG-free Tips on Eating at Asian Restaurants"
I often overhear people asking at Asian restaurants in the US, "Do you use MSG?" and the servers/owners say "no". Then they're satisfied and happily eat there pouring lots of soy sauce over their food! Peception is reality... I'm sure they eat MSG-loaded American food every day anyway.
Not to sound like a pain, but are you 100% sure that it's MSG? MSG appears in tons of foods - not just as a flavor additive in Asian cooking. Basically, if you see "natural flavor" (or something along those lines) the foodstuff has MSG. MSG is actually the most consumed food product in the US today. Anything canned or frozen you eat will have MSG in it.
I just want to encourage you to enjoy food in Japan - there's many, many fantastic things to try while you're there. Perhaps before you leave, you could guinea pig yourself and/or try to go through the "can get migraines" part of your meals and see if it's not really a trigger to more specific foods. I might also check with your doctor and see if you've developed an allergy to peanuts and/or shellfish. Most studies trying to replicate the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" that was attributed to MSG in one study in the late 60s couldn't ever tie it back to MSG. No one's really found anything solid, but the better theories say the amount of peanut oil and shellfish and common cooking dishes for all items (i.e. a pan that just cooked a shrimp dish cooks a chicken dish for someone allergic to shellfish and lighter allergic symptoms appear).
If you have had this confirmed, my apologies. I figured I'd just offer this up for you in case it's the case of "it could be that you're sensitive to MSG" comments that's stuck.
Outside of that, I'd recommend you'd go light on any soy sauce as that will be your biggest MSG offender. (Well, unless you go for Italian - then you'll want to avoid Parmesan Cheese since that's got tons more.)
i agree, we don't know the specifics of your case. but my reaction is it may be a sensitivity to lots of salt. this will usually leave me with a headache. you can try to stay hydrated and balance salty dishes with plain ones.
monosodium glutamate: sodium is half the ions in table salt, glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid - I'm not a doctor, just a biochemist, but there's a possiblity there's something else leaving you with a headache.