2-min ode to India's national dish!

Updated: Jul 01, 2020, 07:38 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

The privileged, Indian man cannot cook; okay #NotAllMen. But hey, I can prepare Maggi, says the 'maa ka ladla' with some bragging rights.

Mothers make Maggi as if it was a full-on sabzi of its own. I prefer mine, sufficiently soupy and unobtrusively plain (with onions, max). Pic/Mayank Shekhar
Mothers make Maggi as if it was a full-on sabzi of its own. I prefer mine, sufficiently soupy and unobtrusively plain (with onions, max). Pic/Mayank Shekhar

Mayank ShekharTwo distinct years, 1947 and 1983, define India's post-independent history. Don't know what you're thinking. I'm referring to the late 19th Century, Swiss pan-fried noodles, Maggi. Its inventor Julius Maggi merged his company with the global giant Nestle in 1947 — making it eventually possible for Maggi to reach Indian shores in 1983! Don't know if this is before or after Kapil Dev lifted that other cup-o-noodle at Lord's.

What made Maggi — just as curly as the mop on Kapil's head — so historic for Indian homes? Those of my vintage will recognise that it liberated kids from the severely unattainable pleasures of "baahar ka khana". Meaning, 'outside food' — or anything that wasn't the usual rice, chapati, etc — a vice so strong that it was strictly rationed to once a month/week, depending on boundaries set by individual, middle-class parents.

But what's this oriental looking, crispy wheat-flour, mixed in boiled water, with desi masala? Decidedly 'ghar ka khana'. Despite the exotica — saving parents the financial burden of ordering in; plus the logistics of going out. Okay, I have no idea about the MRP of Maggi over decades. Here's the thing though — it costs R12 a pack, in 2020.

That's less than the price of a cigarette-stick. In the mass/volume-based pricing of Maggi or McDonald's, it seems, lies the solution to the world's hunger problems. Chiefly because this approach isn't inclined towards treating food as merely a set of survival nutrients for the helpless poor. It comes with an element of sinful taste and popular entertainment. Admire that about the inviting simplicity of Maggi.

It draws you in more than the equally loved peasant street-food — such as vada pav in Bombay, or litti in Bihar — aimed at satiating the kadka consumer, with two fat dollops, and you're good for half a day! Also, have to say, the vada pav has somehow cost the same, forever. Maggi's case appears special still. No other product has had such stabilised pricing over the past two decades, besides cocaine off Indian streets, if you may!

And Maggi must anyway have some narcotic/opiate quality to it that there's nobody you'll ever meet, who grew up on this yellow-brown substance and isn't adulting on it still. No kid you know ever rejected Maggi. It's usually love at first taste.

People began scoring Maggi through underground channels, when it got summarily banned in India in May 2015. Wait, banned for what? Excessive levels of lead and MSG. Based on? Report from a lab, in a place called Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh — surely blessed otherwise with Swiss precision on testing other local/street foods. Baba Ramdev, the adorably desi Rasputin, launched his own noodles brand shortly thereafter.

Were there any takers for it? Don't know. Did Baba's bhakts not line up against a videshi padarth (foreign element)? Don't think anything sounds more Indian than Maggi. Maybe Bata (which is Czech). Or Lifebuoy, or Bullet/Enfield (that are British).

Are there as many takers for other noodles in India, anyway? Comedian Vir Das sums it up in his stellar anthem, the Maggi Maggi song: Don't know about f***all oats / Top Ramen has no class / Wai Wai fails to fly my eye / And Knorr can kiss my a*se.

Such dard; full feelings. Mainly identified by the privileged, brown man (smothered by the mother), who can't cook. But can claim, "Hey I can make Maggi!" Maggi's my shit. Even that two-minute preparation often comes with the brag, "My Maggi is better than yours." Better, can't bet on. But it'll be different, for sure. There are as many varieties of cooked Maggi as there are desi men who can boil water.

The old-school/college hostel types don't mind it even raw — but definitely prefer it with no vegetable add-ons (eggs are fine). Mothers make Maggi as if it was a full-on sabzi of its own. I prefer mine (see picture), sufficiently soupy and unobtrusively plain (with onions, max).

Detest therefore the arrogant prick who plasters paste over paste of random condiments/ingredients to show off on a late-night, when everybody's hangry, and just looking for simple Maggi you can find absolutely anywhere, between Attock and Cuttack, Kashmir and Kanyakumari.

Checked with my friend Usman in Islamabad: "Is Maggi 2 minutes popular in Pakistan?" "Yeah, it is actually," he leaves a quick smiley. Does Maggi unite sub-continental tastes like only generic staple-food (namely rice and/or wheat) does? Could be.

If you take India as a whole, it's certainly more popular than butter chicken (or chicken tikka masala; that's the national dish of Britain!). And a few notches above even medu vada and masala dosa — most likely Karnataka's contribution to the Indian breakfast table.

Writing this during COVID-19 lockdown in Mumbai, of course. The recorded Indian history of which, if it's honest to the moment, must range from the deeply traumatic migrant/labour crisis that followed to the supposedly trivial — the instant disappearance of Maggi noodles — of Chinese origin and Swiss make — across desi stores; gone in two minutes!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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