By Shahnaz Habib
“I am curious about the world that will emerge after this. Some of us always knew this—the porousness of our borders and our bodies. Now that we are all on the same page, who will we become together?”—Shahnaz Habib
Don’t tell my daughter or my mother. But sometimes I eat Maggi noodles for lunch.
Maggi, a square block of instant noodles, was out of the question in my household when I was growing up in what was then a small south Indian town. My parents, like most people we knew, cooked three meals every day from scratch and the sound of pressure cookers whistling and chapathis being flipped was the daily background music to which we children did our homework. We were whole wheat and brown rice kids.
Once a month or so, as a very special treat, my parents would order porottas from the Rolex Hotel down the street. The porotta, a popular layered flatbread, is flaky and decadent the way my mother’s whole wheat chapatis could never be. This is because porottas were made of maida, or all-purpose flour. Pretty much every time we ate porottas, my father shook his head and told us that the men who stuck Communist Party posters on the walls in our street used a mix of maida and water as glue.
“And that is what is going inside your intestines right now,” he would invite us to imagine.
Maggi, of course, was nothing but maida, with a side of MSG.
By the time we started lusting after it, Maggi was owned by Nestlé. I always assumed that Maggi was named after a beloved Nestlé heiress called Maggie. My classmates often mocked my curly hair, calling it Maggi after the wiry curly instant noodles, and in my imagination, beautiful, rich Maggie Nestlé had curly hair. But she existed only in my head. Years later, I found my way to the Nestle website, as one does, googling Maggi ingredients in a desperate attempt to postpone working on some writing project. That is how I found out that the Maggi story began in Switzerland. It was the brainchild of entrepreneur Julius Maggi, son of a Swiss mother and Italian immigrant father, who inherited his father’s stone burh flour mills in 1869, just after steel roller mills had been invented.
Helped along by the steel industry, the United States was producing more flour than ever before. Swiss mills could not compete: their traditional stone burh system took far too long to produce far too little. Maggi was worried. And he had another problem: many of his women workers were anxious about not having enough time to cook nutritious meals for their families. According to company lore, Maggi started producing protein-rich legume flour to cater to working women, and after that, it was a short step to instant, nutrient-packed foods: ready-made soup bases and bouillon cubes.
None of this seems particularly revolutionary now, but imagine what those little bouillon cubes meant in the nineteenth century. They helped women stay longer in factories and they provided workers seemingly nutritious foods that you could make on the factory floor. If steam helped fuel the machines of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps it was bouillon cubes that helped fuel the humans who operated them.
But the Maggi origin myth is itself a bouillon cube. These croutons of information are littered all over the Internet, from Wikipedia to various news articles to endnotes in books available digitally. When I chase this trail of crumbs back to their primary source, it turns out to be the website of Nestlé, the company that now owns Maggi after buying it in 1947. Nestlé is also the company notorious for its deceptive advertising in developing nations, from pushing its baby formula as a superior alternative to breastmilk to touting health drinks for nonexistent diseases. So perhaps the entrepreneurial acumen of Julius Maggi is the product of a corporate copywriter. Perhaps it is as fictitious as the curls bouncing off the head of Maggie Nestlé. To live in 2020 is to know that the truth is far too hidden under layers of internet webbing to be knowable.
You know how google is used as a generic verb to stand in for all kind of Internet research? In India, Maggi is used as a generic noun for all instant noodles. So I was surprised to learn that Maggi did not invent instant noodles. That honor goes to Top Ramen, created in post-war Japan by Momofuku Ando, a Taiwanese immigrant. A serial entrepreneur, Ando saw an opportunity in the long lines outside ramen shops and the availability of cheap American wheat flour, the same phenomenon that had forced Jules Maggi a century ago to switch directions. Instant noodle companies mushroomed in the sixties and seventies with women joining the workforce and rapidly rising populations in Asia. Ando’s Top Ramen in Japan was followed by Indomie in Indonesia and Mama in Thailand and Nestle’s Maggi in India.
My siblings and I watched eagerly as the kids in the Maggi noodle ad came running to their mother on our television screens in the 1980s. The mother’s sari was yellow, the exact shade that matched the bright packaging of Maggi noodles. My brother and sister and I were urban latchkey kids, and the longing we felt watching that mother meet her children at the doorstep when they came in from playing in the backyard was not just for noodles. When they complained about hunger, the Maggi mother didn’t ask them to help her in the kitchen. She merely smiled and sang, “do minit” (two minutes). The curly golden noodles danced on the screen and filled the colorful bowls. The children who ate them seemed happier than we were.
One day some visiting uncle gave us children a few rupees. After intense consultations, we waited for a day when both my parents were out of the house and bought Maggi noodles. We read the instructions, boiled water, threw in Maggi, chased it with the seasonings in the aluminum foil masala packet and waited for two minutes. The resulting concoction was everything we wanted—gloopy and tangy with sophistication. So this was what the forbidden fruit tasted like. The noodles reminded us vaguely of the greasy Indo-Chinese food that we ate in the only Chinese restaurant in our town. It immediately convinced us we were adults. Our parents were so behind the curve. “So strict, so old-fashioned,” we lamented as we licked our bowls.
Naturally, when I moved out of my parents’ house Maggi noodles were the first thing I bought. There was a little canteen on the premises of the Delhi University residence hall where I lived, more than 1,600 miles away from my parents. For 10 rupees, the canteen bhaiya would serve you a steaming bowl of Maggi noodles.
Soon I started making them myself, on the hot plate at the end of my hall. The counter-space surrounding the hot plate always had a fine dusting of Maggi noodle crumbs. Across India, at any given time, hostel students are cracking Maggi noodles into hot water. Missed breakfast because you overslept? Eat some Maggi. Hate the horrible lentil khichdi they serve for lunch? Maggi to the rescue. Midnight snack to fuel the last-minute paper? Maggi. Maggi. Maggi.
I learned many life lessons while making Maggi noodles. I learned to buy in bulk—the four-pack cost only a little more than three singles. I learned that the watched pot never boils but the unwatched pot will turn into a charred black mess. Boiling Maggi became my gateway drug into the world of cooking. Omelets. Pasta. My thairusadam, rice seasoned with yogurt and spices, was, if I may say so, rather famous on my floor. I became good at repurposing the potatoes served at lunch by stuffing them into the bread saved from breakfast and frying the whole thing to make a kind of samosa.
In fact, there is also a Maggi samosa. Cookbook writer Tarla Dalal has a recipe in which Maggi is cooked and stuffed inside a pastry shell and deep-fried. Which seems weird only if you have not eaten a Maggi sandwich, a street vendor specialty that involves cooked Maggi noodles inside two pieces of heavily buttered toast that is then deep-fried.
Yet another iconic Maggi recipe was improvised at the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen. Cooking is near-impossible in the Siachen, an uninhabitable glacier that India and Pakistan have been fighting over for several years in a pointless who-will-blink-first battle. In the subzero temperatures there, eggs freeze and tomatoes turn to stone and rice needs hours of heat to become edible. Indian troops have created a dish now known as the Siachen Omelet: a mix of powdered eggs and boiled Maggi noodles.
I, too, might have invented a new Maggi dish, but then one day I offered to make some Maggi for a friend. In a bid to impress her, I sautéed onions, tomatoes, carrots and fresh green peas in butter stolen from the cafeteria crocks before adding water and Maggi. My friend, a veteran of residence halls and fending for herself efficiently, rolled her eyes. “Maggi is supposed to be instant food. There is no need to make Maggi biriyani.”
Oh, wise words. I remembered them again and again and again after I gave birth to my daughter. Not every meal needs to be biriyani. Not every dish needs to be done. Not every plant needs to be watered. A few years ago, my mother and I were talking about vegetable stock. I told her how I make my own stock using odds and ends left over from cooking. She nodded her head approvingly. Then she leaned in and said cautiously, “You can also buy it in a store.”
I know exactly what she was trying to tell me. It’s good to make every meal, every morsel, as nutritious as possible. But sometimes you need to eat in two minutes and move on.
Staying healthy in an unhealthy world is a full-time job. I may have spent years of my life reading nutrition labels and googling ingredients. And yet, I am constantly being outsmarted. In a world where words such as “natural” and “nutritious” and “wellness” are developing new etymologies, I appreciate Maggi’s honesty. The bright yellow packaging and the brittle noodles give you exactly what you are looking for: a two-minute fix.
Beyond the fact that all it takes is indeed do minit, the magic of Maggi is that it is bad enough to satisfy my self-sabotage instinct. Because I am an incredibly shallow person, eating Maggi is all the rebellion that I need. Maggi is my cigarette, my alcohol, my cocaine. Gratified that I have broken a few rules, aglow with a sense of my own independence, I can once again sit down in my chair and be a productive member of the capitalist society.
I have to confess though that the first thing I do when I open the packet is fish out the little sachet of seasonings and throw it in the trash. Maggi purists will not approve of this. I count among my friends people who lick the sachet after emptying it, their eyes rolling heavenwards. But I prefer Maggi noodles as a blank canvas. After all, remember, you are a rebel. Break Maggi’s rules for Maggi-making by sprinkling some herb de Provence into the noodles. Or throw in a little Thai curry paste and coconut milk. Feeling dangerous? Add some frozen vegetables. But do not chop your own vegetables. Because that would be going too far in the other direction.
These days I secretly make Maggi when my daughter is at school. Before she leaves and after she returns, we are a whole wheat and brown rice family, like the one my parents raised me in. But on days when deadlines are looming and every molecule in my body wants to spend the day procrastinating by trying out some super-fussy, multi-step recipe, I go back to those Communist posters stuck to our walls with maida. Around the same time that Julius Maggi was freeze-drying legumes and making soup bases, Karl Marx was writing Das Kapital. From each according to ability. To each according to need. And so I offer myself two minutes of Maggi.
And then I eat each twisted noodle.