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Food in Two Worlds: Adoration of the Maggi

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Maggi is a salty, thin, brown sauce that millions of cooks around the world love. You’ll need it if you want to cook West African joloff rice or Austrian fritatenzuppen. It’s sold in liter-sized bottles in China and Poland, and it’s just as familiar on German tables as it is on Filipino ones. The Vietnamese sprinkle it on their bahn mí and the Mexicans in their jugo de res.

Maggi seasoning, one of the world’s first industrially produced foods, has found its way into some of the most classic recipes of far-flung, otherwise unrelated, cuisines. Officially, the sauce was invented in 1886 by Julius Maggi in Switzerland, but that doesn’t matter to the immigrants I interviewed. For them this iconic seasoning is the taste of home, whether home is Nigeria, Burundi, the Philippines or Austria.

And the Maggi-files I interviewed in this podcast (which you can download above) are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Maggi love. There are blogs devoted to Maggi and #Maggi on Twitter collects gems of 140-character devotion to the sauce.

Now that you have an idea of how beloved this sauce is, it’s also important to note that it’s something of a vice.

(But first watch an ancient commercial for Maggi below.)

Maggi seasonings (there are several different versions) contain either MSG (monosodium glutamate) or some other form of glutamic acid (this is the chemical that’s responsible for the much-discussed, vaguely-defined fifth flavor, umami).

MSG is controversial. The Food and Drug Administration labels MSG as "Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS)" along with consumables like salt, sugar and vitamins. MSG was originally maligned for causing Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in the late 1960s. Though the connection has since been debunked, there’s still mistrust of the ingredient, a point that was brought up a few times in my interviews.

Regardless of where you stand on the MSG debate, Maggi’s high sodium content (1006 mg for each 18 gram serving of Polish Maggi) means it will never pass the health test. Like all great, world-changing spices, Maggi has no real nutritional value. But that doesn’t stop people from loving it.

Below are some recipes that use Maggi. But if it goes just as well with German food as Burundian cuisine, chances are it will taste good in any number of dishes you already make.

Yetunde's Yam Porridge. Courtesy of Feet in Two WorldsYam Porridge

This is a dish from Yetunde Taiwo, a Nigerian immigrant who describes it as comfort food.

1/2 small tuber yam
1 medium onion
2 red peppers
1/2 tsp of sugar
2 plum tomatoes
1 habañero pepper
1 cup of water
¼ cup of vegetable or olive oil
½ a cup of chicken broth
¼ tsp. curry powder
¼ tsp. thyme
1 3/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
¼ tsp. Maggi seasoning
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 Maggi cube
1 tbsp. crayfish or shrimp powder (you can find this in Asian or Mexican groceries)
8 peeled jumbo shrimp

Cube 1/2 onion and 1 plum tomato and set aside. Blend the other half of the onion and the remaining tomato with the red and habañero peppers. Cut, peel and dice yam into chunks. Heat a pot over medium heat and pour in a 1/4 cup of oil. Pour in blended peppers and chicken stock.
Bring to a boil and allow the sauce to simmer for 5 minutes. Add cubed yams, curry powder, thyme, salt, sugar, Maggi seasoning, tomato paste and Maggi cube. Let cook for 26–28 minutes (use fork to test for softness of yam). Add cubed onions and tomatoes at the 20-25 minute mark, add shrimp and crayfish powder. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the shrimp is cooked through. Serve with fresh fruits.

Poached Shrimp

by Miguel Trinidad

This is a recipe that the head chef of Maharlika, a modern Filipino restaurant in the East Village, came up with after the van with all his spices broke down on the way to a catering event. Maggi was the only seasoning in the house, so this was a dish of necessity that Miguel still makes.

1 lb. jumbo shrimp
2 whole lemons, cut in half
1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 cup Maggi

To make a poaching liquid, combine Maggi, lemons, peppercorns and bay leaf in a medium sauce pan and bring to a boil. Drop in the shrimp, boiling them until they are pink and cooked through. Drain the shrimp, chill and serve.

Calle Sombrerete Chicken

This is a recipe based on a chicken dish of my Senegalese neighbors when I lived in Madrid. I didn’t think to ask for the recipe when I left the city, but I’ve made my version many times since I left. It has all the flavors, but I’m sure it is inaccurate, so instead of ascribing an ethnicity to it, I call it Calle Sombrerete, after the street we lived on.

4 chicken thighs with skin and bones
1 large red onion (or 2 small ones), cubed
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, julienned
1 pinch of cumin
¼ tsp. of ground ginger
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil
Several dashes of Maggi seasoning to taste

Heat a teaspoon of vegetable oil in a medium skillet and brown the chicken pieces starting with the skin-side down. Once the skin has crisped, turn the pieces to brown the other side. Remove from skillet and set aside. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pan. Saute all the onions with about ½ of the juliened ginger, cumin, ground ginger, Maggi, salt and black pepper, until the onions just start to become tender. Add about ½ cup of water and put the chicken back in the pan, add the rest of the ginger. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through and tender, about 25 minutes.
Serve over steamed white rice cooked with a pinch of salt and a bit of vegetable oil.

Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation. Fi2W podcasts are supported in part by WNYC Radio and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.