Eating MSG free in Thailand can be a difficult task. Most restaurants and vendors use it and deciding to cook for yourself can prove to be additionally difficult as most sauces and condiments contain the additive. Few labels list ingredients in English. The following is the result of years of trying to not be poisoned and often not succeeding.
In The Grocery Store
- Assume anything savory contains MSG. Should a food label list ingredients in English, any ambiguous word for flavouring added should be assumed to include MSG. When in doubt, the safest course of action is to only buy savory products (i.e. sauces, potato chips, shredded pork, nori) and other pre-packaged foods that state they are MSG free.
- OTop is a national Thai brand that promotes natural foods geared towards maintaining one’s health. Their products are MSG free.
- Vegan products are safe and are don’t contain MSG. Large grocery stores such as Tesco and Big C generally carry some pre-made vegan meals. To identify them, read a previous post on the subject here.
At A Restaurant
It’s incredibly difficult to eat MSG free in a restaurant in Thailand. I have an intense MSG allergy and I can speak Thai – I continued to get poisoned for four years in the country. Some people don’t listen, some people forget, some people don’t care, some people fear the food won’t be delicious so they decide to put in less than they normally would, some people will prepare your food in a bowl with MSG in it from their last customer…the reasons are endless.
- Only go to restaurants where you can watch the preparation of your food (i.e. street vendor and roadside shops).
- Learn how to say the following phrase:
Mâi dtông sài pŏng choo rót nah. Mâi dtông sài Rotdee dûay kráp (for men) kâ (for women).
Essentially translated as, Please don’t add MSG. Don’t add Rotdee (a widely used seasoning powder which contains MSG) as well. Kráp (used by men) kâ (for women) are polite particles. Use them. I’ve been told that some people will add MSG in spite of the person ordering if they think they are pushy and/or high so (high society, which most people assume Foreigners, particularly if you are lighter skinned to be).
Really pay attention to the tones, ideally find someone who can speak Thai to teach you.
- Support Muslim businesses. Thai Muslims are restricted from cooking with MSG – I haven’t been served food at a Muslim eatery, be it a restaurant, a shopping mall stand or a vendor in the market that contained it.
- Be loyal to those that don’t poison you. I’ve found that if someone doesn’t poison you the first few times, there’s a good shot it won’t happen again. They may also enjoy having you as a regular.
- Go vegan. To identify vegan restaurants and proprietors visit my previously written post on the subject here.
- Skip the soup. The broth, the meats (unless raw) and the lukchin are dosed with MSG.
- Anything sweet won’t contain MSG, unless it’s sweet and savory (i.e. the small packets you receive when you purchase sliced fruit.)
- MSG is in a seasoning pack widely used, called Rotdee. The seasoning pack doesn’t have any English language on it (at time of writing). To avoid eating this, use the phrase listed in the post.
- Really pay attention when going to a vendor of any kind for the first time. However, please don’t be obnoxious in doing so, you may really anger the cook. I’ve caught a woman adding MSG to one of my orders who refused to admit she had done so, with a spoon of the remaining additive in her hand.
- Above all, trust your instinct, if you think you saw someone adding MSG in your food, don’t eat it. If you think it tastes too salty, buy another meal from somewhere else. I used to doubt myself, think I was being obsessive and on a number of occasions suffered for it. To give you an example, I lived at a gym in Bangkok for one year where the cook consistently added MSG to my food. She initially told me that she has stopped using both MSG and Rotdee after I mentioned my allergy. I trusted her. She lied. I eventually found out that she had been using less MSG and Rotdee. One of the ways I found out was that she admitted to it, after she informed me that I’m not allergic to MSG, I’m just allergic to a lot of it. Please note, my health suffered for it and my allergy became more acute as this went on for somewhere in the neighbourhood of a year. Looking at old photos from that period, I often have the inclination to delete them – swollen eyes, bad skin, not to mention it effected my stamina in the gym. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on, when all it came down to was a woman who lied. And my faith in her lie. Don’t let this happen to you.