African Cooking: What’s With the Maggi Cubes?
Maggi inventory cubes—wealthy with sodium, MSG, and hydrogenated fat—are ubiquitous in West African cooking. However what are they changing?
Groundnut soup, Sierra Leone
At a community-based eco-lodge on Sierra Leone’s Freetown Peninsula within the spring of 2012, Scott and I have been invited to tag alongside for the weekly run to the native market. On the purchasing listing was all the things from groundnuts (peanuts) and pineapple to bread and eggs, and Maggi. I didn’t suppose something of the flavoring agent, figuring the inventory cubes have been thrown into a number of of the native stews as a base. However a big pack was bought for the week, and on the market, it was clearly a well-liked merchandise. We quickly realized that each dish we ate at this place included shrimp-flavored Maggi cubes, from the usual potato-leaf stew to the scrumptious tomato-based “particular sauce” that accompanied the contemporary grilled lobster.
It didn’t finish there. It shortly turned evident that almost all eating places we visited in Sierra Leone used Maggi (or its Chinese language cousin, Dag Bah, made by Qiangwang Group) of their meals. On distant Tiwai Island, the place the only real cook dinner usually needed to get hold of components from villages off-island, the seasoning was current in each dish. Building employees who arrange a makeshift lunch camp deep within the hills close to Kenema put Maggi within the plasa they cooked. In Senegal, too, girls promoting some favourite dishes exterior markets in Dakar cited Maggi as an ingredient. So what’s with all of the Maggi cubes in West African delicacies? It appeared that, like groundnuts, black-eyed beans, okra, palm oil, rice, and millet, they have been simply one other key part of the delicacies.
Making lunch in Sierra Leone
What’s the Downside with Maggi?
Nobody will inform you Maggi cubes are good on your well being. Good for a dish’s taste, completely, however not your blood stress (or ldl cholesterol, for that matter). This website lists every ingredient in a dice of West African Maggi, however the salt and trans fat are the largest issues. Maggi cubes are excessive in not solely sodium—comparable merchandise common about 1,000mg per dice or half dice—but additionally often include hydrogenated oils and many monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
Extreme sodium is linked to hypertension, which might result in coronary heart illness, stroke, coronary heart failure, and kidney illness. Hydrogenated oils (suppose margarine) are once-healthy oils processed into toxic trans fatty acids, which have been proven to extend LDL, or “dangerous,” ldl cholesterol, and reduce HDL, or “good,” ldl cholesterol. And whereas MSG is now “typically acknowledged as protected” by the FDA within the U.S. and meals writers and cooks like to wax poetic about it, it’s in all probability not one thing you wish to be consuming a lot of in processed kind a number of instances a day, every single day.
(Nestlé, which acquired the Swiss-owned Maggi in 1947, states on its web site that there’s “no constant scientific proof to assist a meals intolerance to MSG” and it’s “protected for common consumption on the present ranges.”)
Maggi Cubes vs. Custom
After I realized I used to be consuming these items at each meal in West Africa, I instantly heard these bad-for-your-health bells going off, however then I received curious: How on earth have been these dishes ready right here earlier than Maggi got here alongside?
I didn’t discover my reply in Africa. However again in New York, I observed in a Sierra Leonean cookbook bought in Freetown—What’s Cooking At this time, by Muriel Emekunle Davies—that whereas Maggi cubes are sometimes listed as components, they’re all the time a substitute for one thing known as “ogeri,” which a Freetown chef knowledgeable me, through electronic mail, is fermented benni (sesame) seeds. Additional analysis recognized one other conventional seasoning known as sounbareh, the seeds of the néré tree, or African locust bean tree, which fits by the identify soumbala in different West African nations.
Apparently, sounbareh acts as a thickener, flavoring agent, and meat substitute, and has a a lot increased dietary worth than inventory cubes. In keeping with a report from Sluggish Meals and the U.N.’s Meals and Agriculture Group, one purpose it’s fallen out of favor is deforestation. One other is that within the market, sounbareh now competes with Maggi.
A number of elements negatively have an effect on the provision and consumption of the locust beans: indiscriminate harvesting and burning of the timber, growing demand for the product from all ethnic teams and stress from native fauna on the plant—monkeys and squirrels compete with the human inhabitants to eat the fruit, particularly earlier than they dry out…It’s an important product to native Sierra Leonean gastronomy, and is below stress from varied sources. A few of this stress is contradictory as on the one hand the demand for the product is excessive amongst rural populations, however the availability of the plant is in decline, whereas on the opposite the city or semi-urban populations have a tendency to interchange it with Maggi cubes. The processing of the seasoning is a part of the Mandingo tradition and its unfold amongst different ethnic teams is a consider social cohesion. The product, notably compared with the ever-present industrial inventory cubes, has a big dietary content material.
It’s not laborious to guess why a shopper would possibly select Maggi over sounbareh for that tasty umami oomph: Making ready the seasoning is a course of that features harvesting, cleansing, fermenting, boiling, and drying the seeds over a course of a number of days, after which roasting and pounding them to be used in cooking. That’s a lot extra time and effort required than merely unwrapping a Maggi dice and dropping it right into a inventory pot.
It’s not nearly comfort. In lots of components of West Africa (and past), Maggi has grown to be a beloved a part of the delicacies, triggering nostalgia among the many diaspora. It’s its personal class of “native ingredient,” one thing many dishes wouldn’t be the identical with out.
Nestlé’s Maggi and its assorted knockoffs, it appears, have discovered a solution to change outdated meals traditions with new ones. However at what dietary expense? And can these unique gastronomic traditions go extinct, or discover a solution to reside on?
A restaurant in Popenguine, Senegal
Attainable Maggi Substitutes
When Scott and I questioned the then volunteer supervisor of the Sierra Leone eco-resort concerning the inclusion of those sodium bombs in each meal, he was slightly alarmed and requested to brainstorm substitutes for their very own meals. We’re not nutritionists or cooks, however one thought was to make use of home made inventory, maybe with all these lobster shells they have been composting after meals. Nevertheless, with restricted solar energy and a tiny fridge, the resort wasn’t ready for such an endeavor.
In Freetown, we met one Sierra Leonean chef, at an exquisite restaurant known as Balmaya, who instructed us she most popular to make use of common outdated salt and pepper as an alternative of Maggi, which she suspected to be unhealthy. (We personally discovered her meals, like this cassava-leaf plasa, scrumptious even with out it.) MSG the flavour enhancer was born of dried kombu seaweed in Japan—and we’ve heard of cooks in Chinese language cooking who use sea kelp in lieu of the stuff—so definitely that would work too.
In fact, as soon as I examine ogeri and sounbareh, these turned the clear solutions. However are they nonetheless used in any respect? The Freetown chef says sure, particularly the place Maggi is simply too costly for folks to afford it (although she notes that manufacturing of ogeri has declined dramatically in Sierra Leone, and sounbareh has likewise grown expensive). Ibrahim Fatorma, the Sierra Leonean supervisor of the eco-resort we visited, knowledgeable me that ogeri continues to be utilized in many conventional recipes, however, echoing the Sluggish Meals report, largely upcountry. In an electronic mail he additionally alluded to a different scrumptious Maggi substitute comprised of lati fish, a kind of native herring, together with a number of different components, and added that the resort has dramatically in the reduction of on its Maggi use.
Maggi’s a humorous factor. Everybody is aware of it, and it does certainly make all the things style higher. Many cultures, effectively past West Africa, have grown to depend on it, this little taste explosion in a dice. I don’t query the nostalgia issue, or the comfort of any inventory dice, however Maggi can also be indisputably not good for one’s well being, from a sodium standpoint alone. Wouldn’t or not it’s in Nestlé’s greatest curiosity to remodel the Maggi system so it does much less potential well being injury to the populations consuming it not simply now and again however almost every single day?
Shortly after our go to to West Africa, the corporate introduced plans to fortify its bouillon cubes with iron to handle deficiencies within the African market. Which makes us marvel: Will the added iron be listed earlier than or after the hydrogenated oil within the ingredient listing?
Eds.’ observe: In 2017, Nestlé introduced plans to scale back the sodium content material of Maggi cubes by 10 p.c, and to swap out unrecognizable components with actual meals.
This publish was final up to date on Could 15, 2020.