Thursday, August 14, 2008

The boy who ate MSG

In literature you have the boy who ate stars (two different works and authors from different continents but the same title) and in tabloid journalism the boy who had a fish for a twin. In the recent news we had the boy who ate MSG.

More than a week ago there was a news story from Sagay City, Negros Occidental about a two-year-old boy who had MSG (monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer commonly known as vetsin) to go with his rice. He must have had too much of MSG (as there was no dish to eat with his rice) and he got dizzy, fell down the stairs and hit his head on the ground. His destination was the hospital where doctors found him to have suffered from head trauma as a result of the fall.

According the news report by Carla P. Gomez (Inquirer Visayas) and from TV news online the boy was out of danger but there was bleeding in an area of the brain that needed attention.

As the story went, the children’s father and mother (who is pregnant with their sixth child) left their two-year-old son in the care of his four siblings because they were going to sell buko ice candy. The couple, both in their 30s, earn about P60 a day. The children, according to the mother, usually ate rice with salt because that was all they could afford. When the salt ran out, the nine-year-old daughter fed her baby brother with rice mixed with MSG and water. In Ilonggo, ginsamo-samo.

For the poor, salt or asin could serve as ulam when there is nothing to go with the rice. (Although Tagalog speakers would say magdildil ng asin, not mag-ulam ng asin.) We need our salt like we need our staple pan de sal (bread of salt).

Filipinos translate the word ulam into English as viand. English speakers who are not Filipinos aren’t familiar with the word viand or, if they know the word, don’t use it. In the dictionary viand simply means “an item of food” or “a choice or tasty dish.”

Viand for us Filipinos is ulam that goes with the rice. I don’t know how the word viand got into our food vocabulary. The word dish might be associated with washing dishes. In Ilonggo (Hiligaynon) and Cebuano, viand is sud-an. In Bicol it is sira. In Ilocano it is sidain. When the viand is delicious we say in different tongues: Masarap ang ulam. Kanamit gid sang sud-an. Lami gyud ang sud-an. Masiramon su sira. Naimas ti sidain.

When there is no viand, eating only rice should be much safer than mixing into it too much salt, bagoong, soy sauce, patis or fish sauce, sugar or MSG. Pity the kidneys and the blood. But unlike bread that could be eaten as is, rice, for Filipinos, has to be flavored with something. But then, even bread has to have palaman (filling) or dapli (that’s Ilonggo for “to eat with”). And Filipino-style pasta has to be groaning with sauce (even as we say—argggh!—“sous”).

And when it is the other way around, like in Chinese banquets when it’s one ulam after another and the fried rice is to come only at the end, Filipinos are aghast. Where’s the rice? Ulam and rice must go together. Rice must be eaten with something. Even if, for the poor boy from Negros, it’s MSG.

I think MSG manufacturers should have a warning on MSG wrappers like plastic bags have. I’ve had my own “MSG syndrome” experience many years ago when, after a sumptuous meal in an Asian restaurant, I felt a tightening in my neck and was short of breath for about 30 minutes. I didn’t know about the MSG syndrome then and I thought I was just too full and I let the feeling pass without alerting anyone.

But MSG or no MSG, what was a two-year-old boy or baby doing on the stairs that he had to fall? Well, the five kids were simply by themselves with no adult to look after them. The parents had to leave home to scrounge for their next meal.

This reminds me of the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” popularized by the Brothers Grimm which, I think, should be read “with parental guidance”. Brother and sister were abandoned in the woods by their parents who were too poor to feed them. Lost in the wilderness, they chanced upon a cottage full of goodies where a witch lived.

That old tale arose from the famine of the 1300s in Europe when families had to dig for roots in the wild just so they could eat.

This reminds me of the news story, some years ago, about families in some remote place in the south who dug for wild edible roots so they could eat. Some fell ill because they did not know how to process and cook the starchy roots that were considered poisonous. Toxicologists, chemists and food technologists were called in to assess the root. I don’t know about the root cause.

I remember writing a column on the physiology of hunger after that. Maybe I should dig up that root, er, piece.

The story about the boy who ate MSG speaks not only about the poverty many families have to endure but also about parental neglect and ignorance. A family of seven (going on eight) subsisting on P60 a day, eating rice with salt and—why not—MSG… …Who to blame?

And now, even the cheapest ulam which is canned sardines is becoming expensive for the poor. Worse, canneries in the Zamboanga are either downsizing or stopping operations because of the prohibitive cost of production. Fishing vessels are grounded. Workers are laid off and weeping. Their employers are weeping.

If things don’t change, about 50,000 land- and sea-based workers in the Zamboanga fishing and canning industry who have lost their jobs will no longer be able to afford sardines. Their last pay could only go so far. Like the boy who ate MSG, they’d go dizzy and fall to the ground. Or they could go to the wilderness and dig for roots.