12 June 2015

Maggi and the food-loving children of the 90s

Maggi. There’s a word that hasn’t been part of my vocabulary since I left college,

and is now all of a sudden all anyone can talk about. By “Maggi” we mean Maggi

noodles, the pale yellow ones with their distinct Maggi-ness, not the oats or atta

imposters that came in later. Maggi was never more than a junk food, even

though the advertisers tried hard to make it some kind of nutritious home meal.

“Dress it up,” they begged, “Put frozen peas and carrots in it! It’s all your child

needs.” Rubbish. 

Yum, I love lead.



Maggi in my home was such a junk food, it was a special treat. I remember when

I lived in one of those housing societies where everyone’s kitchen was in the

same place, and if you walk through a certain vent, you could smell everyone’s

dinner cooking. This was the 90s, the height of the Maggi explosion in India,

when everyone sang along to the happy mother in Maggi ads who said, “Two

minutes!” when her kids clamoured for food, and banged their forks on their

empty bowls. I smelt Maggi wafting out of at least four windows. “It smells like

home,” I told my mother wistfully, a story she does not fail to trot out now with

great indignation. “Here I was making sure you had healthy, balanced, tasty

meals, and there you were craving Maggi!” she says now. Of course, now that I

live alone, I would love to have my mother’s home-cooking any day over some

over-preserved instant noodles, but there’s kids for you. 


The same really happy, really healthy looking kids toured all the food on

television in those days. There was a kid who boing-boinged out of bed when he

smelt sunflower oil on the stove, his mother making puris, and such was his

delight that he did a cartwheel right there, yay, sunflower oil! There were the

kids who drank Complan without complaining (a pun the copywriters should

have used back then, if you ask me), going so far as to boast about it, while an

undiagnosed lactose intolerance made me gaze gloomily into my glass every

evening, the milk brown with Bournvita or whatever, and already forming a skin.

I envied them as I envied the children shouting about “doodh, doodh, doodh!”

Then, there was the little girl who had a whole pitcher of Rasna, the lucky thing,

and who tilted her head to the right and said, “I love you Rasna” with such a glow

of health on her face that I wanted her life immediately. I wanted all of their lives.

But none so much as the Maggi kids, who demanded a snack and were given

something their mother was so pleased to serve them, so healthy, she told us, so

easy to make!

Of course, as the years went by, we realized that “two minutes” was that

standard Indian lie. More like two-minutes-ish. I grew suspicious of food that

was that easy to make. Just add water served me well through exams and late

night sleepovers at friends houses. I don’t think I ever ate as much Maggi as I did

in college, when we were discovering the joys of a midnight snack after drinking.

Maggi, made the way my friend did it with loads of chilli garlic paste and cheese,

was perhaps the opposite of the way the Maggi Mother intended, but it was

much, much tastier.

But even I, nostalgic in spots, child of 90s, haven’t picked up a packet of the

instant noodles in years. I eat them in extreme weather conditions on mountain

tops somewhere, where the starch and the warm and the feel of it are comforting

and soothing. On a pass in Ladakh. On a ski trail in Gulmarg. But after two days

up in Gulmarg, my body longed for something not so instant, so I got boiled eggs

instead, halved and stuffed with masala, and just as warming, if not more than

Maggi. In Ladakh, I veered for the chocolate section, great for altitude sickness,

and probably still not as bad for you as Maggi, it turns out.

Why the furor then on social media? Why the sadness? It came as a great

surprise to me. Surely people aren’t still eating Maggi as a regular thing, not

when we have access to so many other good instant foods out there? (MTR’s

range of home-cooked food comes to mind.) It must be the memories. We’re

conditioned to think old is good, and Maggi has somehow entered our

consciousness—this Swedish brand—as quintessentially Indian.

It was fun while the party lasted though. And I’m glad we’re getting more

stringent food checks. The last time I saw someone buy Maggi was ironically my

mother, who now that she lives alone at home has taken to eating it as a “guilty

pleasure” in her own flat. Meanwhile, I who longed for it so much, whip up three

course meals made out of organic materials.

(A version of this appeared as my column on mydigitalfc.com.)

(More Maggi? I wrote an article for Scroll on books that came out in the same era)

4 comments:

  1. Great article and the consumer in me agrees with you. Prior to college the last time I had Maggi was when I was 8 years old and fell sick for the next 4 days. To be fair I gorged on a lot of junk food that day (including raw cake dough). Somehow I always blamed Maggi for that and always looked at it in disgust thereafter. Until, of course when I went to college and the closest thing to home food was Maggi.

    As a lawyer though I am extremely offended by the way people are trying the case in the media. Our food standards and testing equipment are far below the internationally accepted norms but when they scream wolf the whole nation panics. Most states in the country who have tested Maggi after the initial outburst have found it to be edible (though why one would choose to eat it is another question entirely). Recently Singapore found it safe to eat. But still the states continue to ban it feeding into the public frenzy. Either the FSSAI are way ahead of other international / private testing agencies, or they are just groping in the dark.

    I may be going completely off topic from your post (for which I apologize) but if the FSSAI wishes to improve its credibility and is genuinely worried about food safety it should stop talking to the press before it is absolutely certain and second and most important - Be absolutely certain when it comes to such sensitive topics.

    Apologies for a rant so long. It was supposed to be a 2 minute read only! :).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your article succinctly shows how the advertisement industry tries to shape desires and create needs, without caring much about the consequences of such actions; in order to maximize the profits of various capitalist enterprises. It is very important to talk about these things in our contemporary world.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Loved Maggi that I discovered fully during college days and post daaru party. Not without my maggi..I still feel it ain't that bad and if it is, so are food in restos. I am sure it will be back on the shelf/

    ReplyDelete

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