By Aurora Almendral
When it comes to home cooking, immigrants from countries as far apart as Nigeria, the Philippines and Poland share a common ingredient.
They all use a condiment called Maggi seasoning. And they all think it belongs to them. But they're all wrong.
Maggi is a salty brown liquid that’s a little like soy sauce, but more intense. It comes in a little amber bottle, but it’s also available in cubes. It’s an essential ingredient in Divine Muragijimana’s kitchen. She’s from Burundi, but now lives in Brooklyn. As she talks, she’s frying onions. She’s making a dish called ugali, a thick pasty starch made with cassava flour, which she serves with fish and a fragrant sauce. Maggi’s a key part of the mix.
“It makes a difference between a food becoming African, and not African,” Divine said.
When she first moved to America, Divine lived in West Virginia. She says it was impossible to make a proper Burundian meal.
“There were no Maggi cubes and the cilantro they used here was crap,” she said.
Years later, she finally found Maggi in a Cincinnati market. She says the first meal that she made was beans and rice, with a little meat.
“That was the first dish, because that’s such an African, at least Burundian, meal. It reminds me so much of home,” she said.
Divine’s latest meal is coming together. There’s a bowl of thick ugali, and a sauce with tomatoes and cilantro. You can just make out the aroma of Maggi wafting from the skillet.
Maggi is so much a part of her culture that Divine has always assumed it’s African.
“I don’t know where it comes from, I haven’t even inquired about it. All I know is that it’s African. Full stop. Where ever else it comes from, they don’t need it,” she said.
But she's wrong. And when she learns that, she's disappointed — and a little disbelieving.
“My dreams are shattered,” she said. “Now I really have to wonder, how did African food taste without Maggi? How did it taste before Maggi arrived?”
Divine’s not the only one who lays claim to Maggi. Just a subway ride away from her house is the Polish G.I. Delicatessen in Manhattan, a small store packed with Polish food. On the shelves, next to packets of powdered vanilla, tins of herring, and jars of Polish preserves, owner Grace Iwuc stocks Maggi seasoning.
“Polish people, they buy this a lot,” Grace said. “You have to use (it) always.”
Maggi is a staple in Polish cooking, but you’ll also find the distinctive yellow-and-red label in Chinese groceries, Mexican markets and German specialty stores.
But it's not from any of those places.
Of course, Maggi seasoning does actually come from somewhere. It was invented in Switzerland in 1886 by a Swiss-German named Julius Maggi. One of the first industrial, mass-produced foods, Maggi was intended to make soups and stews taste heartier for factory workers who didn’t have much money for meat.
Maria Christina lives in New York, but grew up near a Maggi factory in Austria. She was surprised to learn Maggi is popular in other countries, like the Philippines.
“Really, it has a Filipino taste?” she asked. She said she always thought it had a very Austrian-German taste.
“It’s creepy. It’s really creepy,” she said. “I don’t know how something like this can happen.”
At Maharlika, a Filipino restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, Maggi gets a place at the table, alongside bottles of spicy vinegar. Maharlika plays on Maggi’s kitschy, cult status back in the Philippines. But people here have an idea why Maggi seems so ubiquitous. It has to do with “umami.”
“It’s a flavor profile, but it’s also a sensation,” said Topher Chung, a server at Maharlika.
Umami is often thought of as the fifth taste — after sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It was first described in Japan in 1909, and it comes from foods that contain a lot of glutamic acid — like ripe tomatoes, aged cheese and MSG, which Maggi has a lot of.
“It’s supposed to evoke goodness, the most raw, natural state of goodness in food,” Topher said.
Maggi has enough of its own flavor so you know it when you taste it, but it’s Maggi’s umami that makes food taste more Polish, more Burundian, more Mexican or more Filipino.
And that’s probably why immigrants from those countries and many others have come to think of Maggi seasoning as the flavor of home.