The globally beloved seasoning brings all other flavors into sharper relief
Despite rice’s presence in the majority of my meals, I wouldn’t say that I often crave it. It’s more that a lot of things feel incomplete without rice; so I eat it. But sometimes, in very particular circumstances, I crave a bowl of plain rice — no need for anything on top, not even an egg, just a few inky brown splashes of Maggi.
The Maggi seasoning of my childhood memories comes in a yellow and red bottle that boldly states: “Improves the taste.” Of what? Everything. Just as good on eggs and as it is on steamed greens, Maggi comes in clutch in soups, stews, sauces, stocks, and anything where salt isn’t enough to fill the void. Fans might add it to bloody marys, pickling liquids, and marinades, or use it as a vegetarian-alternative to fish sauce, or mix it in mayo or dip. In both appearance and flavor, the most common comparison for Maggi is soy sauce, but where mass-market soy sauces in the United States can be single-note (salty), Maggi is all savory complexity, lingering in your mouth like a piece of seared steak or shiitake mushrooms with all their moisture coaxed out. Like beef broth but richer, it is maybe most useful in vegetarian dishes that can’t get that umami boost from meat.
Though Maggi is a Swiss creation — Julius Maggi, a soup entrepreneur, invented the seasoning in 1886 — it’s now the yellow and red label beloved ‘round the world. Because of this global appeal, the components of each bottle of Maggi Seasoning vary depending on the bottle’s country of origin. As cookbook author Andrea Nguyen wrote on her blog, the French and German versions, which both contain MSG, are more delicate in flavor than the Chinese version that’s the most popular in the U.S.; pointedly, the Maggi intended for the U.S. market has no added MSG. Jugo Maggi from Mexico, meanwhile, is darker, thicker, and more concentrated. The bottle of Maggi Savor I have on my shelf, a version manufactured for the Philippines, gets its wallop of flavor from salt, sugar, “biologically hydrolyzed wheat protein,” glucose, MSG, “acidulant (glacial acetic acid), caramel powder, flavor enhancer (ribonucleotides), and nature-identical flavor.” Next to it is a bottle of Maggi Savor Calamansi, which has a pronounced citrus tartness.
As Khushbu Shah has written for the Washington Post, this global fixation with Maggi considers all its forms, from the liquid seasoning that I love and that Nguyen needs for banh mi, to the bouillon cubes chef Kwame Onwuachi uses for jollof rice (to the instant noodles for which Shah is nostalgic). They all have their uses and their fans, to the point that a 2012 story by The World called Maggi “the local seasoning from everywhere,” offering an umami that “makes food taste more Polish, more Burundian, more Mexican, or more Filipino.”
But Maggi, like MSG, has its detractors. Sometimes, because of Maggi’s inclusion of MSG, this opposition is buoyed by junk science (that MSG is inherently “bad” for you is a viewpoint historically rooted in xenophobia). More often, though, it seems to be a resistance based on principle: The sign of a good cook, in some’s estimation, is to be able to make food taste good without over-seasoning and without the crutch of food science flavor enhancement. “Their food is okay,” a relative told me not too long ago in her review of a Filipino restaurant. “But they use too much Maggi.” The restaurant’s misstep was in making Maggi’s presence too clear — not just a backbone of flavor, but the foreground and the takeaway. There is an artificial palate fatigue that can come with too much Maggi (and for that matter, too much MSG); a barrage of savory makes it hard for your palate to yearn for it.
Maggi can be a star all on its own, as it is when I put on rice. But its best work happens in the shadows, when it deepens the richness of caramelized tomato paste or adds structure to a vegetable broth without drawing all the attention to itself. Not everything needs it, but when you add just a few drops, Maggi is like turning up the Sharpen filter on Photoshop just a click or two, bringing everything into sharper relief and making you realize you were missing something, after all.