This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Magic Cube, first released on November 24, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
KNORR NIGERIA AD: It’s the natural ingredients and rich flavor of Knorr that brings people together.
MAGGI CZECH AD
KNORR VENEZUELA AD
MAGGI GREECE AD
OXO UK AD
CYNTHIA GRABER: You may never have heard of any of these products—Maggi, Knorr, Oxo—but they are some of the most popular ingredients in the entire world.
NICOLA TWILLEY: They are brown, they are savory, they are salty and delicious, and they are EVERYWHERE. We’re talking about stock cubes or bouillon if you prefer—industrial brown umami gloop or powder. So how did these concentrated umami bombs become a universal ingredient?
GRABER: And what does the story of the invention of all these products have to do with the chemist who was the first to insist that protein helps build strong muscles AND with magical people who live on electricity?
TWILLEY: Plus how did the invention of these “meat extracts” lead to the creation of those iconic love-it-or-hate-it toast toppers, Marmite and Vegemite?
TWILLEY: Today’s story starts, as so many good stories do, with a German chemist.
NADIA BERENSTEIN: Justus von Liebig was one of the people who kind of invented modern chemistry as a field. And his contributions are vast in laboratory science, in agriculture, in nutrition.
GRABER: And once again, we have the wonderful flavor historian Nadia Berenstein on the show! And for the purposes of today’s episode, Liebig’s contributions to agriculture are not the most important. We’re interested in his nutrition science.
TWILLEY: At the time, in the 1800s, scientists were hard at work trying to understand what the heck food actually was.
BERENSTEIN: This is kind of what chemists were up to back then in the 19th century. They were like, there’s all this stuff in the world. What is it made of? Let’s figure it out and name it.
TWILLEY: Not just name it, but decide which bits of it were essential. Chemists were trying to break food down into its elemental parts and understand exactly which parts we needed to survive.
GRABER: In the 1830s, scientists named and identified protein, and they found it particularly fascinating.
TWILLEY: But why not keep breaking things down? That was the trend at the time. And scientists had noticed that different protein-rich foods seemed to be made up of slightly different building blocks—these are what we call amino acids today.
BERENSTEIN: If you think about proteins as molecules—I mean, most of us aren’t thinking about proteins as molecules. But if you imagine it, it’s a sort of long molecule that’s composed of a lot of different component parts, some of which are amino acids. And what hydrolysis is, is basically this process of blasting that big molecule apart into these constituent pieces.
GRABER: This is in fact exactly what Liebig did: hydrolysis. He took hydrochloric acid and used it to break down, or dissolve, meat, and then figure out what the different kinds of amino acids were.
TWILLEY: Liebig’s big breakthrough was identifying one particular amino acid, creatine, which he then also found in the muscles of living animals. He found it in especially high levels in the muscles of a fox that had died while it was running—and that’s what led him to the conclusion that creatine was the key to muscle action.
GRABER: People had been claiming that meat was important for health for a really long time. But Liebig’s contribution was to show—at least based on his science at the time—that the protein in meat was critical for muscles, and so it was an essential component of a nutritious diet.
TWILLEY: Liebig went as far as to say that the protein element of food was the only true nutrient.
GRABER: Meat was it.
TWILLEY: So when his friend’s daughter came down with typhoid, Liebig knew exactly what she needed: meat! But she was too sick to digest solid foods.
GRABER: So Liebig took some cooked chicken, he ground it up, he soaked it in hydrochloric acid to dissolve it—all to get at what he thought was the critical creatine. Then he added another chemical to neutralize the acid and turn it into table salt. And then he gave the young girl this salty, savory broth.
TWILLEY: And she recovered!
GRABER: And this led to what became one of his most popular discoveries at the time. Liebig was able to use chemistry to create a modern version of beef tea.
TWILLEY: Beef tea had been popular with the sensitive and sickly for a few decades. The idea was that invalids who were too delicate to eat a great big steak could still get all its goodness by boiling that steak in water, straining it, and then drinking the resulting meat juice.
BERENSTEIN: Basically, the idea is if you’re sickly, if you’re wasting away with, you know, any of the numerous diseases that may have afflicted that the Dickensian populace in the mid-19th century, what you want to do is to get an easily and readily absorbable source of strengthening food, of protein.
GRABER: Liebig’s was different from traditional beef tea. He didn’t need to boil meat for hours to break it down, he could use hydrochloric acid. To Liebig, this meant he could keep in more of the good stuff from meat in the broth, he thought boiling it was less effective.
BERENSTEIN: So Liebig’s beef tea was kind of this concentrate, this sort of hydrolyzed, blasted-apart beef proteins made into a liquid broth that sickly little orphans and delicate women could sip and thus be on the way to restoring their health.
TWILLEY: Liebig published his beef tea formula and it quickly became all the rage with fragile elites searching for something to pep up their delicate constitution. Pharmacists would make up a big batch and evaporate it and sell it under the name Extractus Carnis—extract of meat. It was classified as a legal drug in Germany. In fact, it was considered so essential that pharmacists were required to keep it in stock.
GRABER: Doctors reported that Liebig’s formula for Extractus Carnis could be useful for tuberculosis, typhus, various stomach derangements, and scrofula. One doctor said it could be a useful substitute for brandy in cases of exhaustion, depression, and despondency.
TWILLEY: I’d rather have a brandy. But the point is, Liebig’s high-tech version of beef tea was a wonder drug in the 1850s. It was thought of as a way to give the goodness of muscle-forming meat to the weak and puny.
GRABER: And this was of particular interest to Brits at the time, because, well, people were concerned that Brits were getting weaker and punier.
LESLEY STEINITZ: Yeah, so, so British government, British elites felt that the country was in decline because its population was no longer eating sufficiently well.
TWILLEY: Lesley Steinitz is a historian at Cambridge University.
STEINITZ: And they had a lot of data to back this up. The 19th century was the era of—the beginning of the era, we still do it hugely—but was the beginning of the era of counting everything. And there were censuses, there were surveys. And all of these things seemed to show that the British men were getting punier. The women were being less fertile, were having fewer babies. Lots of children were dying very young. There was a lot of child mortality. So all of these things together were creating a huge crisis of confidence, which left a gap for something for the British people to believe in.
TWILLEY: And the thing they believed in was beef—they’d always loved beef, and Liebig’s new research backed them up—
GRABER: But where did this beef obsession come from?
STEINITZ: Now you’re asking about my favorite subject. So beef—like now, if you talk about steak to a lot of men, beef is the—it’s man food.
GRABER: We talked about this in our recent Moo-dunnit episode—Brits believed that beef was responsible for expanding their empire, it made them strong, it made them British.
STEINITZ: While the British ate more beef per capita than just about anyone else in Europe—and continue to do so—many or most of the British people couldn’t afford meat. And so this was a cultural ideal. But it wasn’t something that people got to eat very often. But it was something they aspired to.
GRABER: Liebig dreamed of using his beef tea as a way to get the wonders of beef to everyone who needed it. But there was a problem.
TWILLEY: There just weren’t enough cows in Europe to supply the poor with the amount of flesh-forming protein that was considered necessary—even in tea form. Worse, there was a big outbreak of a cattle plague in 1865, and 100,000 British cows died.
GRABER: But Liebig knew there were a lot of cows in South America.
BERENSTEIN: So think of South American pampas of Argentina and Uruguay, where there’s just a ton of cattle, happily, or semi-happily or perhaps unhappily grazing. That meat source, those steaks, that nutrition is pretty hard in, you know, Liebig’s time, 1850s, 1860s, to transport to Britain. There’s a big leather industry, because you can tan leather and you can ship it around the world. But the meat that is on these, you know, leather cows in Uruguay and Argentina is hard to get anywhere else.
TWILLEY: Because, wait for it, there was no refrigeration!
STEINITZ: So a lot of this beef was simply waste. The main product, at that time, of the cattle was their leather and the tallow.
TWILLEY: Lesley says a lot of that wonderful flesh-forming meat was just left to rot.
GRABER: And so a German industrialist who’d been building roads and railways in Brazil read about Liebig’s work and got the idea that cows in South America could be converted to Liebig’s beef extract and shipped that way. He wrote to Liebig and they set up shop in Uruguay.
BERENSTEIN: And they build a factory there to process these hundreds of carcasses of oxen and cattle that are being raised for leather and basically to turn these carcasses into this portable, packageable, containable extract of beef.
TWILLEY: In the lab, Liebig had used the modern wonders of chemistry, specifically hydrochloric acid, to extract the essence of beef. But that wasn’t feasible on an industrial scale back then. Instead, to create his extract of beef in a factory, workers started by squishing cattle carcasses into a pulp using steam powered rollers. They dropped that pulp into hot water and steamed it for an hour. And then they skimmed off the solids, and evaporated the remaining liquid into a dark brown gloop.
BERENSTEIN: They claimed that for every kilogram of extract they had concentrated the, what they called the food value, of 34 kilograms of meat. So basically, every 34 pounds of beef can be reduced to this brown, viscous, savory, soupy fluid that can then be put on a boat and sent to England.
GRABER: And though it might sound weird, this viscous, savory, soupy brown meat extract became a huge hit with everyone—now, it was affordable.
BERENSTEIN: It was quite popular. And I think possibly the first time that a new food product that was named after a chemist, like made it, made it in the market. It was especially popular among people in nursing and people in the military. So Florence Nightingale brought along a bunch of Liebig’s Extract of Meat when she was tending to soldiers who were wounded in the Crimean War. Henry Stanley, who went looking for Dr. Livingston in Central Africa—you know, the “Dr. Livingston, I presume” guy—brought a bunch of Liebig’s Extract of Meat in his supplies when he went exploring in the back country of Africa. So basically, it was seen as this—accepted, really, as this wholesome good substance—a health-giving, strength-building, strength-maintaining substance that could conveniently be packaged into a little jar.
TWILLEY: Florence Nightingale and Henry Stanley were early adopters. But, straight away, there were some doubters. One scientist who analyzed Liebig’s extract of beef in his lab said it was quote “like the play of Hamlet without the character of Hamlet.” Liebig’s Extract of Meat seemed to be missing the meat.
BERENSTEIN: It turns out that this central claim, the thing that Liebig’s Extract of Meat is promising to do, which is to, you know, give you all the goodness of the cow in a much smaller package, was actually not true at all. One of the experiments that sort of investigated these claims, they took a group of dogs and they fed them only on Liebig’s Extract of Beef. And they all starved to death. So obviously there’s something missing here, right? And it turns out that when you actually do a nutritional analysis of Liebig’s product, it doesn’t really have very much protein or fat at all. It has very few calories. It’s basically just a taste, a flavor.
TWILLEY: The missing meat wasn’t Liebig’s only problem.
GRABER: At the same time that Liebig was commercializing his big protein idea, other scientists had continued breaking down food and trying to figure out what it was made of, and they started to argue that other parts of food like carbohydrates were important, too.
TWILLEY: Maybe even more important—the science of nutrition was progressing so fast that everything was still kind of up in the air.
GRABER: But Liebig wasn’t ready to give up. Okay, his Extract of Meat wasn’t exactly the same as meat, and maybe meat wasn’t the only thing you needed in your diet. But that didn’t mean his Extract of Meat wasn’t important nutritionally. That savoriness and the taste of meat was also thought to be critical, because, the theory went, it would affect how well you could absorb the nutrients in your food.
BERENSTEIN: Essentially, one of the ideas at the time was that it’s not just the food that you consume that matters, but how well you’re able to absorb it.
TWILLEY: Because yet other scientists in the 1800s were doing a lot of research on digestion.
BERENSTEIN: And showing that the anticipation of something delicious causes all of these physiological changes in your body, this cascade of like fluids flowing within you that prepare your body to assimilate the proteins, the fats, the starches that you then consume. So Liebig kind of repositions his product in part as this health food, because it’s a food that sparks appetite.
TWILLEY: A truly impressive pivot. In just a couple of decades, Liebig’s Extract of Meat had gone from a medical product essential to human life to being a convenient and affordable ingredient that made food taste better. And so sales of Liebig’s Extract of Meat continued apace.
GRABER: But the fact that it didn’t actually have any meat in it did open the door for a competitor brown gloop.
BOVRIL AD FROM THE 1970s
SINGERS: A break from work, a welcome sight, plus beefy Bovril puts us right, it perks us up, warms right through, helps us through the day.
VOICEOVER: Bovril. Delicious, warming, reviving. There’s nothing quite like Bovril’s beefy taste to put new heart into you, fast.
SINGERS: It perks us up, warms right through, helps us through the day!
STEINITZ: So Bovril was beef extract, which Liebig had invented. But it also added the thing that Leibig’s is extract was hugely criticized for not containing. So Bovril also contained dried ground meat mixed in with beef extract.
GRABER: Bovril was invented in the 1870s, by a Scot named John Lawson Johnston.
STEINITZ: He grew up somewhere in the highlands of Scotland until, as a young boy, he was adopted by his uncle, who was a butcher who had a shop in Edinburgh just a mile or two down the road down the hill from the amazing castle.
TWILLEY: John Lawson Johnston worked in his uncle’s butcher’s shop, but he also somehow snuck into lectures at Edinburgh University where he learned a little about Liebig’s exciting new discoveries in chemistry and nutrition.
STEINITZ: And somehow he got a commission from the French government to produce a preserved, nutritious food for the French troops. And he came up with this product, which he made his own, a brown liquid gloop that you could add to hot water.
GRABER: Originally John named his invention sort of the way Liebig did, he called it Johnston’s Fluid Beef. But then he came up with something much more creative. The first part, Bov, that came from bovine, like cattle.
STEINITZ: Vril, instead, came from a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton called Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. It was a very, very popular proto-science fiction novel. The Vril-ya were people who lived underground and had this amazing, astonishing civilization fueled by a power called Vril. It was an electricity-like power. And Vril was used to grow their plants. They had these sticks and they could fly around. The marvelous thing about this society was the women were in charge. So this Vril was sort of an energetic thing. And I think that this name, the Bovine that represented the protein, the Vril represented the stimulant, the energy.
TWILLEY: A powerful combination and a very effective marketing message. Which was something Bovril became known for.
STEINITZ: It was advertised in a way which was absolutely spectacular and very different for the period. John Lawson Johnston himself was quite a showman. One of the innovations was to put the huge, huge word “Bovril” on top of buildings in top London landmarks. So Piccadilly Circus is very famous for that. There was a huge Bovril sign in the sky, which after a while was lit up—so very modern with electricity.
GRABER: Later he hired a super famous bodybuilder to be the face of the product–
STEINITZ: He used Eugen Sandow, who was the strongman and great pinup of the era, as one of the people to endorse the product. During the First World War, he used semi-naked bodies of armaments workers, as the personification of a man strengthened by Bovril.
GRABER: After all, Liebig had quote “proven” that beef built muscle, so it makes sense that Bovril would be advertised on the basis of strong naked men. It’s kind of like how protein powders are marketed today.
TWILLEY: John Lawson Johnston had originally developed his product for the French army, if you remember. The French and the British were not the best of friends at the time, so John temporarily moved to Quebec.
STEINITZ: Montreal had these winter fairs where they built an ice palace and people would flood into the ice palace and see lots of different things. And Johnston set up his stall with these women, these wenches, and huge, great big urns of steaming hot Bovril and was pouring it out into cups for people to buy.
GRABER: Bovril took the Montreal winter fair by storm. Because just a few years before John showed up with his beefy broth, Canada had introduced Prohibition. And it turned out that this savory drink was strangely a popular replacement for booze.
TWILLEY: After a factory fire, John sold his Canadian business and moved back to Britain, to London, where he put on the same show—at the 1887 Colonial and Indian Exhibition, he built another ice palace and employed fur-clad ladies to serve hot Bovril. And even though Britain never introduced Prohibition, there was a big temperance movement at the time, and Bovril caught on as a non-alcoholic alternative in pubs and bars.
GRABER: Why, I have no idea.
TWILLEY: There are some mysteries that even Gastropod cannot solve.
GRABER: But in any case, this is a time that all sorts of intense brown concentrated savory substances were catching on. Not just Bovril and Liebig’s Extract of Meat, but also another one that’s really popular today called Maggi.
MAGGI AD: Maggi! Maggi! Maggi!
GRABER: At least that’s how we’re going to pronounce it, there are some places in the world where it’s pronounced “madgey.” It was invented in Switzerland.
BERENSTEIN: Julius Maggi was a Swiss mill owner, right, so he’s a capitalist, but he’s also a philanthropist. And he looks at the women—many women who work at his factory. He looks at chronic malnutrition in his community. He looks at the high rates of infant mortality. But he also knows that meat is an elite food, that it’s not going to be accessible. The science of nutrition has showed him that beans, pulses, peas are sources of protein, just like beef.
TWILLEY: So Julius made his own bean-based protein extract. It was genius really—he realized that he could use Liebig’s hydrochloric acid trick to break down the proteins in vegetables too. That way he could start with something cheap, like peas, and end up with the same fabulous amino acids that Liebig was getting from more expensive beef.
GRABER: This was the first vegetable-based umami bomb. It was first a liquid, but then, in 1908, Maggi introduced the very first bouillon cube. He’d evaporated the liquid into a powder and then smushed it into a cube and wrapped it in foil.
TWILLEY: Even more convenient. Maggi’s cube was quickly followed by the bouillon cube of my youth, Oxo, which was the cheaper, cubier version of Liebig’s Extract of Meat.
OXO 80s AD
VOICEOVER: To the question, is it chicken OXO that brings out the flavor of chicken, or chicken that brings out the flavor of chicken OXO? There is no answer. One brings out the flavor of the other. It’s a little like asking which came first, the chicken CLUCKING or the cube?
TWILLEY: And that was joined by Knorr, which was another veggie-based stock cube, invented in Germany.
GRABER: And around the same time, another brown gloop was invented, and I know this one has a great deal of personal meaning to you Nicky, Marmite!
SINGER: My mate, Marmite. My mate, Marmite.
TWILLEY: So I should say that despite my long personal relationship with Marmite, I did not realize that it started life like all these other gloops—as a concentrated base for a hot, brothy drink. I feel as though maybe our relationship was built on a lie.
SINGER: My mate, Marmite.
GRABER: Australians would be pissed if we left off their brown gloop of choice, which is Vegemite.
CHILDREN SINGING: We’re happy little Vegemites / As bright as bright can be / We all enjoy our Vegemite / For breakfast, lunch and tea…
GRABER: To be honest, Vegemite was invented because a food manufacturer wanted an Australian version of the British Marmite when Marmite wasn’t available right after World War I. Both are made from yeast that’s leftover from brewing beer. Yet another cheap source of savory protein.
CHILDREN SINGING: Because we love our Vegemite / We all adore our Vegemite / It puts a rose in every cheeeeek!
BERENSTEIN: So basically, in this period of time, at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, which is really the dawn of a mass market for industrialized food, there’s just this kind of—I don’t know if it’s right to call it a glut—but there are a whole lot of products that are suddenly available to buy that give you the savoriness of a slow-cooked stew in a bottle. So it’s basically, you know, taking this labor-intensive cooking process and instead of, you know, even though it started out by promising this kind of nutritional revolution or this way of kind of delivering necessary protein and strength in a small package. It’s kind of taking this slow-cooked flavor and making it immediately accessible.
TWILLEY: The thing that unites all of these small, savory packages is that they are savory—and that savoriness comes from blasted-apart proteins—what Liebig and other chemists would call hydrolyzed proteins.
BERENSTEIN: Some of which are quite tasty, specifically glutamates, which we register as the taste sensation that we now know as umami.
GRABER: You can get that wonderful savory umami sensation from broken-down proteins in a lot of foods. Cooked and browned meat, and parmesan cheese. Or fermented foods like fish sauce, miso, soy sauce.
TWILLEY: Or, if you’re an industrial food manufacturer with a big factory, you can create it by hydrolyzing the proteins in really cheap ingredients like corn and soybeans. Same great umami taste.
GRABER: But strangely, even though humans had been enjoying the taste of umami since, well, probably since they figured out how to use fire to cook meat, umami was only recognized as an official taste in 1990.
SARAH TRACY: Meaning that it couldn’t be replicated or imitated adequately with using other chemicals that have taste properties—like, say, combining saltiness and sweetness. It had a distinct set of molecular mechanisms so scientists could identify how it was being experienced on a molecular level in the body and other criteria like that.
TWILLEY: This is Sarah Tracy, she’s a historian and she’s writing a history of umami. And she says part of the reason it took scientists so long to recognize umami as a distinct taste is that we still don’t really understand exactly why we taste it.
GRABER: We talked about this in our taste episode—there are theories for why we taste the things we do. Like sweetness—that’s for calories. And salt—our bodies need it and we can’t make it.
TRACY: The kind of oversimplified or straightforward explanation for, why umami? is that it seems to be often correlated with, or strong umami flavor seems to accompany proteins. So the idea, at least from an evolutionary biology interpretation, is that we taste umami to incentivize us to eat essential protein. Much like we taste sweetness and seem to intrinsically be drawn to sweetness right from infancy because we need calories from carbohydrates. So that sounds really sensible. It sounds really rational.
GRABER: But not all scientists agree that this makes sense.
TRACY: Because there are all kinds of naturally occurring food products and substances that we consume regularly for their umami power or capacity that have little or even sometimes no protein, like nutritional value to them.
TWILLEY: For example: tomatoes.
TRACY: Tomatoes are very high in free glutamic acid, meaning that glutamate is running around separated from a larger protein chain. Meaning that our taste buds, our taste receptors can actually get at the glutamate. Tomatoes are very low in protein.
TWILLEY: In other words, tomatoes taste very umami-ish but they are not flesh forming at all. Hence the mystery.
TRACY: We don’t seem to have a single coherent theory for why it is that umami tastes so good. And why so many beloved foods are very rich in this taste.
GRABER: Whatever the reason, we humans love and crave this umami flavor. It’s really a big part of why all of these umami-rich gloops and powders became so immediately popular. And another reason—they were also pretty easy to manufacture.
TRACY: I think a lot of the presence of broken-down proteins in our food supply comes almost by accident. And it’s because other manufacturing processes left these wastes lying around. So, for example, Marmite, the beloved condiment spread, which is very high in umami, is an accidental byproduct or a waste product, co-product, we could call it, of brewing.
GRABER: As we said, Marmite and Vegemite are made from the savory yeast leftover from brewing beer. The enzymes the yeast produce while they’re digesting grain and turning it into alcohol, those enzymes break down the yeasts’ own cell walls—they kind of self-implode—which leaves leftover umami-rich dead yeast cells.
TWILLEY: Which I love to spread on my toast! Yum! Wherever they come from, these hydrolyzed proteins are cheap, they’re concentrated and shelf stable, they’re quick and easy to use, and they make everything taste savory and more delicious. So it’s not surprising that as food production started to become more industrialized, manufacturers turned to this yummy hydrolyzed protein to make everything better.
TRACY: Its enormous value to food producers was that it was able to mitigate for the loss of flavor that came from packaging and processing and heat treating and canning different foods. So it was like a corrective for all the bummer things about an industrialized food supply. So we could, again, have our cake and eat it, too. Our food can be shelf stable and it can be affordable, but it could also be delicious, thanks to food science.
BERENSTEIN: So you see them in a lot of different products, under different names on the ingredient label. Yeast extract is a common one. You see them in, like, chips, other snack foods. Definitely in canned soups. They just kind of make everything taste richer and more savory, more mouth filling.
GRABER: These delicious concentrates haven’t just changed the food on the shelves, they’ve also changed the way we cook, and the way we eat, all around the world.
BERENSTEIN: You know, people talk about industrial taste or like the way that industrialization, the industrialization of food has, has changed our palates or changed what there is that’s available to savor. And I think that this is one of the major ways that that happened. Like suddenly, you don’t have to stir the stewpot for hours anymore. You can just drop a cube of Oxo.
TWILLEY: Something that started out as almost a medical product—Liebig’s Extract of Meat was sold in pharmacies and championed by Florence Nightingale—had ended up being transformed into an industrial flavor and a kitchen shortcut.
GRABER: In fact, it’s not just an industrial flavor, it’s almost THE industrial flavor. This concentrated salty, umami richness forms the backbone of what we eat. It’s transformed what we expect from packaged foods, and it’s transformed home cooking, too.
TWILLEY: Liebig’s Extract of Meat—the product that started this all—that actually isn’t manufactured anymore. But its cheaper stock cube version, the Oxo cube—is still super popular in the UK. And of course Marmite and Bovril are too, although like I said, these days they’re more commonly found on toast and as a hot drink, rather than used as an ingredient in cooking. That said, I lived on Marmite sauce on spaghetti at university.
GRABER: But two products that were launched around the same time as Oxo and Marmite have really taken hold in kitchens, basically almost everywhere, and that’s Knorr and Maggi.
SIMI ADEBAJO: So I’ve probably been tasting Maggi in food since I was like two or three years old. My mom has always used Maggi cubes in our stews and soups. She uses them in like bean dishes. I think every Nigerian or most West African households use Maggi in majority of their dishes. You can go to the most remote village in Nigeria and they still will have Maggi cubes or somebody selling Maggi cubes there somehow.
NIGERIAN MAGGI AD
WOMAN: Try Maggi chicken. Irresistible chickeny aroma. Perfect chickeny color. And rich chickeny taste. Mmmm!
MAN 1: Mmm.
MAN 2: Chickeny!!!
WOMAN: Maggi chicken: The taste of celebration!
TWILLEY: Simi Adebajo is the head chef and owner of Eko Kitchen in San Francisco. And we called her up to ask how people in Nigeria use Maggi cubes.
ADEBAJO: So mostly people incorporate Maggi in their food simply by crumbling it inside the cooking pot. And you let it cook with the dish for about 5, 10 minutes just to enhance the flavor. I’ve seen some people literally crumble Maggi directly on their plate of food, like you would like add like a shake of salt or pepper. But I personally don’t do that. But it’s also used in that way too.
GRABER: Maggi is popular throughout Africa, not just in Nigeria.
PIERRE THIAM: In Senegal, it’s even G, Maggi. So—and in Nigeria it’s Maggi.
TWILLEY: Pierre Thiam is a chef, his restaurant chain in New York City is called Teranga, and he founded Yolele Foods to import West African ingredients to the US.
THIAM: But in Senegal it’s used in pretty much every single dish, you know, every sauce, every soup, every now-national dish, Thieboudienne, would have Maggi in it.
GRABER: Thieboudienne is a fish, tomato, and rice dish—it also has onions, carrots, cassava, and other ingredients—and basically officially now, Maggi cubes.
TWILLEY: Maggi has achieved total domination in West Africa, but, in Mexico, the most popular bouillon is Knorr—they call it Knorr Suiza.
GRABER: Gabriela Lendo works for cooking companies in Spain now but she grew up in Mexico, and she learned how to cook from a woman who worked for her family. And that meant learning to sprinkle in Knorr.
GABRIELA LENDO: I guess the first time I remember using Knorr is, we were making albóndigas—albóndigas de carne in a tomato sauce. So this is meatballs. And towards the end, when she added the water, she would taste it. She would add the salt. And she would always do like a little teaspoon of Knorr Suiza. And I remember she—at that moment, she told me whenever a sauce tastes flat, just add the Knorr and it will give it a sort of a bigger depth to it. And it’s true.
TWILLEY: Gabriela told us once you start looking, Knorr shows up everywhere in Mexican home cooking.
LENDO: Honestly, I do believe it’s a guilty secret. You’ll never find it in traditional recipe books. Chicharron en salsa verde is another typical example where Knorr Suiza is used. And chicharron en salsa verde is like pork rinds in a green tomato and chili sauce. And I would say that most Mexican cooks always end up using a little bit of Knorr to give it an extra oomph, I guess. So, yeah.
GRABER: Knorr first arrived in Mexico in 1961, and Maggi took over Africa a little earlier in the 50s. But basically the fifties and sixties were a time of world expansion and the beginnings of a global empire for concentrated bouillon.
TWILLEY: India joined the universal hydrolyzed protein party a little later, because the country didn’t open up to overseas companies until later. But even though Maggi was only introduced to India in the 1980s, Maggi products have since thoroughly embedded themselves in Indian culture and cuisine.
NIK SHARMA: They are a big deal. I would say the noodles and the Maggi hot and sweet ketchup are the two biggest lines produced by the company in India.
MAGGI INDIA AD
MAN 1: It’s different.
MAN 2: It’s different wah!
MAN 3: It’s different!
MAN 4: It’s different.
VOICEOVER: Maggi tomato ketchup. Always different!
SHARMA: The number of flavors that you can get within the noodles is crazy. And I remember as a kid, they even had a contest where people would submit pitches for noodles flavors. And so it was this mass-marketed driven campaign that would show up every Sunday, I think after the Disney cartoons would end. Because kids loved the noodles, too.
GRABER: Nik Sharma is a writer and cookbook author, his most recent book that just came out is called The Flavor Equation. And Nik remembers what it was that he loved as a kid in India about Maggi Noodles.
SHARMA: You’ve got savory. You’ve got a little bit of sweet. You’ve got a little bit of sour. All those elements are built up with salt. And it all comes together in this delicious package where you’re enticed. And I know when I eat Maggi Noodles, I can feel my—the taste receptors on my tongue just want—craving more.
GRABER: What makes Maggi noodles so irresistible to Nik is the flavor of the powder, of the bouillon.
TWILLEY: In the US, you might find chicken, beef, or vegetable flavor stock cubes, but there are dozens of Maggi and Knorr flavorings adapted for every different country—you can get Maggi Crayfish flavor and Maggi hibiscus and onion flavor and Maggi masala.
MAGGI INDIA AD
MOM: It’s good.
DAD: I haven’t lost that magic touch.
DAUGHTER: It’s not you, Dad. It’s Maggi.
SINGING: Maggi, Maggi, Maggi. Maggi, Maggi, Maggi. Maggi, Maggi, Maggi.
ADEBAJO: So Maggi’s taste is kind of salty, sweet. And depending on what type of Maggi cube you have—because there are different flavor profiles, you can have shrimp Maggi, chicken Maggi, beef Maggi. So depending on what flavor you have, it will kind of have a tinge of, I guess, the gamey-ness that’s related to the flavor as well.
GRABER: Simi says that when Maggi first came to Nigeria, the company marketed its cubes as a way to cook more like white people did.
ADEBAJO: And it was kind of encouraging Nigerians and locals that if they use these cubes in their cooking, they could be held to the standard of their colonial masters. And so it’s like, use these cubes and you can be more sophisticated. Use these cubes and you can be like the white man. And that was the beginning of the marketing of the Maggi cubes in Nigeria. But over time, they now started to realize that obviously they needed localized content because really Nigerians couldn’t relate to what they were trying to sell. And so they started using market women and women who cooked at canteens in public spaces to advertise these cubes. And a huge marketing strategy that Maggi used: They would give the restaurant owner a free signboard to put in front of their restaurant that had the Maggi logo on it, but the name of the person’s restaurant. So there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of restaurants, small restaurants in Nigeria, or bukas, as Nigerians know them, with a Maggi signboard in front, which is very good covert marketing for Maggi.
TWILLEY: In fact, for its Nigerian market, Maggi has even created a mini TV series, Yelo Peppe, which follows the journey of five women—tagline, “Drama is served.”
YELO PEPPE CLIP
MINA: I want to pursue this seriously.
MINA’S MOM: Food blogging. You will find a job that pays your rent.
DOMINIC: Hi. Dominic Caesar. Food and beverage manager for restaurant Doosadoos.
WOMAN: Claude is our new boss.
TWILLEY: No spoilers, but we have got the link on our website if you need some savory drama in your life.
GRABER: Gabriela says that in Mexico, Knorr also targeted women.
LENDO: I can’t remember a specific ad, but I do kind of remember, like, the aura of the ads. They were definitely targeted to our home cooks, mothers, young mothers.
KNORR MEXICO AD
LENDO: With this like, you know, this mom offering a warm bowl of chicken soup and you could even see, like the the steam coming out of the bowl, no? So the hominess and the, “Don’t worry if you don’t have time to do your chicken stock from zero from scratch.”
KNORR MEXICO AD
LENDO: You can still do what in Mexico is like super traditional sopa de letras…
TWILLEY: Alphabet soup! Just like mom made. Thanks Knorr!
GRABER: And remember how John Lawson Johnston hired a super famous bodybuilder to pimp Bovril? Well, the tactic must have been a good one—Maggi did the same with wrestling in Senegal.
THIAM: Because wrestling is a national sport in Senegal. And the champion wrestlers were all sponsored by Maggi. The big game soccer games sponsored by Maggi.
TWILLEY: Basically, huge chunks of the world have been Maggified at this point. And if they haven’t been Maggified, they’ve been Knorred.
GRABER: But Pierre and Simi told us that before Maggi showed up in West Africa, they had their own traditional fermented sources of delicious umami flavor.
THIAM: Maggi is the shortcut, you know, for recipes that used to have other ingredients like, you know, our fermented—we use a lot of fermentation in our cuisine. So there’s fermented flavor that would get from dawadawa, nététou, you know, fermented conch. You know, sometimes you don’t use them anymore because those ingredients, either, you know, they—they have a strong flavor. They’re fermented. So people, instead of having to use those strong flavors, prefer to just have the Maggi, which is a short cut. So that’s what’s been happening. You know, so we see the disappearance of some of those traditional ingredients because Maggi is taking over.
GRABER: Pierre told us about dawadawa, which is fermented locust bean that he uses as a source of umami. Simi cooks with that, too. But she said it can be kind of a hassle.
ADEBAJO: While indigenous spices are very, one, easy to source and, you know, have very interesting umami flavors, they’re not easy to process. So there’s a lot of processing, washing, sorting, that goes from the point you get the spice from nature to actually using it in the cooking pot. And with Maggi, you literally just unwrap the foil wrapping around the cube and crumble it into the pot and you can get a similar effect. So I think that’s why Maggi kind of gained popularity so quickly. It’s just the ease, the convenience of using it.
TWILLEY: Which is a compelling reason, especially for the people who would otherwise be spending hours processing these traditional ingredients. That said, Pierre told us that replacing traditional sources of umami with a Maggi cube is not necessarily a win-win.
THIAM: So much is lost. It’s a tradition that goes away. And in addition to this tradition is the biodiversity. Dawadawa comes from a tree, a sustainable tree that grows in poor soil, that’s brings this fruit, called néré. And the seed of the fruit—that’s what we used to take it and ferment it into what becomes dawadawa. And if it’s not used anymore, if there’s no market for it anymore, it disappears.
GRABER: Of course, Pierre does use Maggi now.
THIAM: You know, I do cook with Maggi and I still cook with dawadawa as well. I use both of them, you know, and Maggi like, can be a shortcut. Dawadawa is not readily available everywhere. I’m working on bringing it with my company Yolélé in the market to have it accessible here in the US. But at the moment—Maggi will do.
ADEBAJO: So at my restaurant I use a mix of both. I was exposed to the traditional seasonings as well as Maggi growing up. And so that’s reflected in my dishes. I use iru, which is the fermented locust beans, a lot at the restaurant because I think there is literally no flavor on earth that—nothing on Earth that can really replicate the flavors that iru brings to a dish. So I try to use that in some of our entrees. And I also use Maggi as well. Just because there is this flavor that Maggi brings, especially to dishes like jollof rice, that I really can’t replicate with other seasoning blends.
TWILLEY: In some ways, Maggi has become authentic—it’s the flavor that Simi grew up with, after all. Nik told us the same thing.
SHARMA: I would say it is an integral part of the culture. Obviously, not everyone does it. It’s not like a rule that’s applied to everyone. But I would say at least in my mom’s community, it is a part of the recipes. Like even, even now when I look at recipes that my mom or relatives of friends from the community send me, they’ll have Maggi soup cubes written. Or they’ll say, take a Knorr. Like I, I’ve inherited my grandmother’s cookbook and she passed away a decade ago and in it it says, Knorr soup cubes. And so I will probably go back just because of that taste is so spot on to what she was making. It, it completes it for me.
GRABER: Nik may be a professional cook, and he does sometimes make stock from scratch, But he doesn’t blame you if you keep some stock gloop or cubes around—he does, too.
SHARMA: And if there’s a shortcut that exists and it works well, go for it. I’m not going to judge anyone and I don’t expect to be judged.
GRABER: I have my own personal bouillon favorite—I am never without a jar of the vegetarian version of Better than Bouillon, it’s a brown gloopy stock paste, and I adore it, and I add it gleefully to savory soups and dishes all the time. I told my mom, now she always has a jar, too.
TWILLEY: I too am never without Better than Bouillon. And, of course, a jar of Marmite.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Nadia Berenstein, Leslie Steinetz, Sarah Tracey, Nik Sharma, Pierre Thiam, Simi Adebajo, and Gabriela Lendo, we have links to their work and books and restaurants on our website, Gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: And a special thanks to listener and supporter Jenny Raymond for suggesting that we should make an episode about Maggi cubes. Plus, as always, huge thanks to our superstar Gastropod fellow, Sonja Swanson.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks—’til then!
MAGGI NIGERIA CHRISTMAS AD
SINGING: Maggi! Maggi! Maggi! Maggi!
MAN: On the 12th day of Christmas my Maggi gave to me…
WOMAN: 12 spicy suya, 11 orishirishi,
MAN: 10 racha moinmoin, 9 efo riro,
WOMAN: 8 nkwobi, 7 pepper soups, 6 sizzling snails,
TOGETHER: Five friiiiied fish!
MEN: 4 coco bangus,
TOGETHER: 3 party jollof,
MEN: 2 gizdodo,
MEN: And fufu with egusi!
MAN: Maggi, Maggi, Maggi, Maggi.