An Ode To Maggi
Maggi Maggi Maggi.
You know you’re Indian if you instinctively sang those three words! Fear not—you aren’t the only one who’s been affected for life by our cultural obsession.
I’m sure a lot of you Maggi fans were heartbroken by the recent reports of high levels of MSG and lead in Maggi samples from UP, and I feel your pain. But I’m not here to talk about Maggi in the present-day; while Nestle and the FSDA fight it out, I’m going into my own Maggi reverie. I’ll begin with a little history lesson, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Maggi is an international brand of instant soups, stocks, bouillon cubes, ketchups, sauces, seasonings and instant noodles. Owned by Nestlé since 1947, the original company was founded in Switzerland in 1872 by Julius Maggi.” India’s relationship with Maggi began in 1982, when Nestlé India launched Maggi two-minute noodles.
And the world was never the same again.
When the brand first launched, the Indian market was conservative in its eating habits and packaged foods were not popular. The initial years didn’t see high sales, but through its smart and aggressive ad campaign, Nestlé made its mark. Positioned as a fun food for kids and convenient for mothers to whip up, today Maggi is synonymous with noodles in almost every Indian household.
And yet, this doesn’t quite explain the magic of Maggi. For, what other snack crosses the boundaries of age and community?
Maggi is often the first thing young children learn to make on their own, to satisfy cravings when parents are busy or away. Ten years later: If you eavesdrop on teenage chit-chat, you might hear kids boasting about how many variations of Maggi they can “cook.” You’re probably thinking: how much can you do with instant noodles? Turns out, if you’re a ravenous teenager with (dubious) culinary talent, there’s no end to the number of Maggi-licious meals you can churn out: cheese Maggi, chicken sausage Maggi, scrambled eggs on Maggi, to name a few. I’ve even known people to put a serving of Maggi between two slices of toast with a layer of potato crisps and a slice of cheese. They called it the “Hangover Maggi.” (I called it the “Heart attack Maggi”.)
And it doesn’t end at the home kitchen. “Maggiwaalahs” in almost every Indian metropolis have built a successful roadside business giving local avatars to the classic, pan-Indian Maggi. It might sound like paying someone to microwave a microwaveable dinner, but college kids, young professionals working away from home, and the occasional grandparent with high blood pressure will disagree. It’s paying someone for a hot, soupy bite of comfort.
Maggi has managed to travel the length and breadth of the country. It’s the magic of Maggi – as much as the masala flavor – that wins over taste buds all across a country with disparate palates. From the remote sand dunes of the Thar Desert to the Khar Dung La pass in Himachal Pradesh, backpacker stories are often peppered with Maggi adventures. Driving down a desolate road without a soul in sight, one finds a lone vendor selling chai and Maggi, the highlight of the journey. Nestlé even recognized the monster it spawned by designing an ad campaign to collect “Maggi stories” from around the country and air them on television.
Yet, even as Maggi brings us together, it tears us apart. You’ve heard of domestic feuds over the strength of coffee, the crispiness of toast, the spiciness of pani puri, but there’s one dispute higher than the rest: the consistency of Maggi. Even though the instant noodles come with specific instructions, there’s plenty of room for people to be fussy. Think that sounds trivial? Think again; it’s often something that can make or break a relationship, like the fickle egg preference of Julia Roberts’s character in Runaway Bride. Some like it wet and soupy; some, dry and soft. Others prefer it somewhere in the middle, and then there are those weird souls who like it slightly raw. I once lived with two other girls, and the three of us liked our Maggi prepared differently. Obviously, we’d make ours separately, rather than cook three packs at once. The landlord thought this ordeal was hilarious and absurd. (He was definitely not a Maggi fan; possibly a foreigner in disguise.)
But now it’s 2015, and everyone is concerned with eating healthy, eating organic. Nestlé India introduced healthier options – if there can be such a thing as healthy instant noodles – in the early 2000s to keep up with changing, healthier diets. The “Maggi Atta Noodles,” made from whole wheat, have not fared as well as the original, refined-flour recipe, and the brand has taken a hit. Today’s health-conscious mothers aren’t introducing their children to Maggi at the tender age of 10 as in previous decades, and maybe this is a good thing. But it means the yellow, curly, two-minute magic of Maggi might be under threat as health nuts take over. Growing up and getting healthier doesn’t mean losing a part of ourselves. Maggi may no longer be the standard 4 pm snack of kids today, but it will continue to hold a special place in our hearts—and stomachs. From the Khar Dung La Pass to the Thar Desert, from the Kanchenjunga basecamp at Sikkim, to the university campus at Manipal, “Maggi, maggi, maggi” still unites us all.