It arrived in India 32 years ago—in the days when television was still, mostly, black and white. We got three hours of transmission daily and so fascinated were we with the idiot-box that we sat watching Krishi Darshan transfixed. Indira Gandhi was still India’s prime minister and had ordered Operation Bluestar with Punjab insurgency at its peak. India had stunned the cricketing world by winning the World Cup in England and Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma had become the first Indian to travel into space, aboard Soyuz T-11.
We were still frogs in the well, with limited exposure to the world outside. The few privileged Indians who went overseas brought cans of Coca-Cola and cartons of Kellogg’s back to India. Other than Coke and corn flakes, our tastes were famously insular. Roti, dal, subzi was our staple diet. Any variation on that was not quite, well, khana.
In that world in 1984—with the turbulence of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the horrific anti-Sikh riots and the world’s worst industrial disaster in Bhopal still to come—we made our acquaintance with Maggi. It was love at first sight.
And love has endured through 32 tumultuous years. Maggi came to India with a swagger, liberated the Indian kitchen and somehow, miraculously, stole into the hearts of otherwise xenophobic Indian gustatory inclinations.
At its peak in the early years of the new millennium Maggi had captured 80, even 85 per cent, of the instant noodles market. Indeed, what Colgate was to toothpaste, Cadbury’s to chocolate and Xerox to photocopiers, Maggi has been to instant snack—the portmanteau to “fast to cook and good to eat” noodles.
In Delhi you will find hundreds of restaurants listing Maggi on their bill of fare.
Its two-minute appeal has endured, although even the most die hard Maggi enthusiasts will admit that the two-minute promise is a ruse—it takes five minutes, if not more, to get your Maggi right. The ease of making Maggi draws chef-like vibes from the unlikeliest of folks, those who would otherwise baulk at the idea of entering the kitchen to cook anything, cheerily offer to rustle up a bowl of Maggi. Even restaurants have fallen to the seductive charm of Maggi. In Delhi you will find hundreds of restaurants listing Maggi on their bill of fare.
Why, in north Delhi in the University area, you have Tom Uncle’s Maggi Point, a restaurant dedicated to the noodle brand. Devotees congregate at the eatery to slurpily tuck into some 70 variations on the Maggi theme—from Butter Masala Maggi to Cheese Oregano Maggi.
A few years ago, when Nestle was celebrating the brand’s 25th anniversary, it launched a campaign inviting consumers to share their Maggi moments. I refrained from adding to the healthy crop of stories the company came up with but here’s my Maggi moment.
In January 2010, me, my wife Ratna and our son Jai, spent a memorable ten days in Kashmir. We stayed on a houseboat on Nagin Lake in Srinagar and had our fill of delectable Kashmiri cuisine, whether gushtaba, rista, yakhni or haak, that exquisite dose of Kashmiri saag. The high point of the trip undoubtedly was our trip to Gulmarg in Baramula district.
A gondola traversing over a blanket of white stretched out by nature as far as the eye could see took us to the top of Kongdoori mountain. It was a bitterly cold afternoon and we were hungry. We sat, like many others, at a dhaba in the snow and had bowls of Maggi noodles served to us. At 14,000 feet in bone-chilling cold a hot bowl of Maggi Masala seems close to a gourmet experience.
The familiar taste of Maggi has fond memories for so many of us. The brand’s success has had to do with smart positioning; it targeted children initially, and since, and got that spot on. Tired of coming back home from school to find a meal of roti and dal waiting for them, children were more than willing to accept something that tasted different and was fun to eat. The brand also focused on the changing urban scenario where increasingly women were getting into careers too and therefore had lesser time to cook for the children. Maggi was positioned as the solution.
The familiar taste of Maggi has fond memories for so many of us.
More recently, the Maggi brand has penetrated not just India but also Bharat—a distinction that the current ruling dispensation is quite familiar with. In 2010 Nestle introduced gravy noodles Rasile Chow for the rural market and sold it at Rs. 4. Amazingly, the company at the time claimed that Rasile Chow and Masala-ae-Magic, the rural market products, were developed to “address the widespread concern about micronutrient malnutrition in India. . .a low-cost, light meal fortified with iron.”
In more recent years Maggi’s laboured attempts to position itself as a healthy and nutritious snack that remain unconvincing. In taste and speed of preparation few would have reason to quarrel with Maggi; but to claim instant noodles are healthy is disingenuous. The Swiss food giant has leveraged its nutritional R&D to escape the ‘unhealthy’ tag; it now has atta and oats variants, and also strenuously claims that its some of its products are fortified with calcium and proteins and contain enhanced natural fibre.
The struggle to be accepted as a healthy snack continues, and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, but the biggest threat to the brand came around this time last year when a decrepit food testing laboratory in Gorakhpur in eastern UP declared Maggi unsafe. The product was consequently taken off shelves all over the country for five months.
Indians of all ages, shapes and sizes mourned the loss of their favourite brand. But India’s food safety inspectors said there’s a problem. A serious problem. The product contains dangerously high levels of lead and also contains MSG, monosodium glutamate, the flavour enhancer especially used in Chinese food. Dire problems need dire measures. 400 million packets of Maggi were destroyed.
The Swiss food giant struggled to cope up with the crisis and repeatedly bungled in the first few weeks. Thereafter, as sales and revenues came under siege, slowly but surely it started to get its act together. It used the ban period to repeatedly assert that Maggi was safe. It explained that 3,500 tests conducted in India and abroad by food standards authorities in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have pronounced the noodles as safe for consumption.
The United States, UK, Singapore and Australia, countries which have stringent food safety standards, certainly standards far more exacting than India, found Maggi noodles exported from India safe for consumption. It did seem strange for a country facing a perennial food shortage to be destroying packets of food and gunning for an international brand, when its home grown brands are known to cut corners galore and use unhealthy ingredients and preservatives.
Nestlé took to social media, Facebook and multiple Twitter accounts (main Nestlé account, Nestlé India, Maggi India) to reassure customers that its product was safe. Nestlé responded directly to all comments on social media. As well as this Nestlé created a section on their main website to keep customers updated. Why, #WeMissYouMaggi was trending on Twitter.
The Swiss food giant repeatedly asserted that its product was safe and presented multiple reports in favour of that claim, the Indian government remained unconvinced. Conspiracy theorists smelt the involvement of the Yoga guru Baba Ramdev in the whole sordid episode. Certainly the rise and rise of the guru’s Patanjali Ayurveda, especially since the NDA government came to power in May 2014, has been eye-popping.
Watch this “Maggi is Safe” promo:
Or this one in Tamil:
Nestle went to court and finally had three laboratories mandated by the Bombay High Court clearing the samples of Maggi noodles. Ghar wapsi came on November 9, two days before Diwali on Dhanteras. The new Chairman and Managing Director of Nestle India, Suresh Narayanan said: Lijiye mooh Maggi kijiye.
Maggi is back on the shelves, customers are happy they have their two-minute meal back, and the Vaud-headquartered food giant is busy recouping losses suffered during the five-month hiatus. All is forgotten in the spirit of forgive and forget, though it will take the Swiss company more time to cover all the four million stores where Maggi was available earlier and with competitors snapping at its heels.
Top Ramen and Yippee grew their market share in Maggi’s absence and, of course, there’s unlikely competition coming in from Patanjali. But if any proof was required of Maggi’s resilience and pre-eminent position in the category, it came the day after Diwali, when Nestle India tied with up with ecommerce giant Snapdeal and released 60,000 “Welcome back Maggi” kits, each containing 12 packets of Maggi noodles. The success of Snapdeal’s flash sale was extraordinary; the kits disappeared in five minutes—that’s 720,000 servings of Maggi sold in under 300 seconds.
Snapdeal held another flash sale a few days later and met with similar success. It was a case of lost and found celebrity status for Maggi. The brand amplified its return with a series of celebratory advertisements with a whole assortment of folks—from dhaba owners to hosteliers—reembracing their favourite brand. This McCann Erickson campaign has smartly announced the return of Maggi on customers’ plates, signing off with a “Welcome back” message:
Maggi’s return has been triumphant but it puts the spotlight on India’s governance standards in general and food safety measures in particular. Going after a brand of noodles for heavy lead content and ignoring streetfood sellers and thousands of dubious restaurants and snacks is scandalous.
Columnist and author Girish Shahane describes Ayurvedic medications as the greatest lead-related scandal. “Manufacturers of Ayurvedic medications are permitted to use toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic, poisoning patients while claiming to heal them. I find it strange that many highly educated Indians grow frantic at the mention of monosodium glutamate, but consider Ayurvedic medicines to be entirely free of side effects. Our immune systems, though, cannot distinguish between lead from Ayurvedic concoctions and lead from Maggi.”
Raising food safety standards in India has to be a priority. Raise the efficacy of food testing laboratories. Rid the food we eat of lead content. Or at least minimise it. But keep scaremongering gurus and charlatans on a tight leash. Stop spreading lies. For instance, read this article in the New Scientist about monosodium glutamate.
Keep faith in science and scientific principles and repudiate silly, starry-eyed notions of ancient India being the fount of everything—from aviation to plastic surgery. Not to mention jadi butis containing cure to all illnesses.
Let the homecoming of one of India’s most loved brands be permanent, as Indian consumers rejoice in the return of their two-minute snack, which they had learnt to make more wholesome adding vegetables, egg, cheese etc.
Unlike the phoney ghar wapsi perpetrated on us by the RSS and its ideological soulmates, let’s hope in Maggi’s case absence of five long months has only made the Indian heart grow fonder and the lovers are truly reunited and will love happily forever after.
Achche din are back.