Tasting Independence

Maggi instant noodles are a treasured favorite among India’s young people. Their banning in 2015 conjured youthful memories of rebellion and revealed the uncertainties of our global food systems.

Jyothi first ate Maggi noodles when she was six or seven years old, sharing lunch with a friend who brought them to school. As she described it, she “fell in love” right away. From then on, Maggi “2-Minute” masala noodles became a fixture in Jyothi’s life. In primary school, she begged her health conscious mother to allow her to eat Maggi. When her mother began working, Jyothi’s wish was granted because her mother was not around to prepare an after-school snack for her. In her final year of high school, Jyothi ate Maggi to cope with the stress of getting into medical school. When she moved away from her native Bengaluru to attend medical school in Mysuru, she and her friends cooked Maggi in a rice cooker in their hostel room, being sure to keep their activities secret so that they could avoid blame for tripping the circuit breaker. Jyothi was in her twenties when we spoke with her in August 2015, and was about to begin a new position as a doctor at a private hospital in Bengaluru. Maggi had been off the store shelves for two months. She expressed confidence that Maggi noodles would soon be allowed back into the market. Until then, she felt sorry for students living in hostels—without Maggi, “What are they going to do?”

Image of a bag of noodles
Image description: A yellow bag features an image of a pair of hands holding a bowl of noodles. Above that there is a logo that reads “Maggi Two Minute Noodles.” Nestlé (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On June 5, 2015, Nestlé’s Maggi noodles—an immensely popular instant noodle product—was removed from store shelves across India. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) banned Maggi noodles when lab reports showed that the product contained impermissibly high levels of lead and undisclosed monosodium glutamate. Nestlé denied these reports, and insisted that the government labs had produced faulty results. Many commentators, including India’s Food Processing Minister, critiqued the FSSAI for discouraging investment in the food processing industry, , with some claiming that the government was unduly targeting Nestlé as a multinational corporation. Our informants relayed rumors that the Maggi ban had been instigated by a new upcoming noodle brand whose CEO was particularly close to India’s Hindu nationalist government. In the months following the ban, Nestlé discarded approximately US$50 million worth of noodles (see Sheffield 2015). This action gave more fodder to the controversy—if Nestlé was insisting that its noodles were safe, why were they being destroyed? Maggi noodles made a triumphant return to the market barely five months later, but it was not until 2020 that Maggi sales recovered to what they had been prior to the ban in 2014: approximately US$500 million (Dutta 2020).

The Maggi ban initiated an intense debate over food safety in India that mirrors other such controversies worldwide: What counts as “safe food”? Who decides? Who should be held responsible—the government or producers and manufacturers? The ban was embroiled in debates about the role of multinational corporations, the loss of Indian culture in an age of globalization, and larger questions of trust and betrayal that are at the heart of contemporary food systems. India’s love for Maggi noodles runs deep; it is the leading company in what is now the world’s third largest market for instant noodles (WINA 2020). Unknown to the generations of Indians who grew up before India opened its domestic markets to global producers in the 1980s, Maggi’s distinctive taste, aroma, and color offer nostalgic access to childhood memories for those who are now in their twenties and thirties. While interviewing seven young professionals and university students about their relationships with Maggi in the months following the 2015 ban, the individual stories began to blur together. The common themes appeared to be an introduction to the noodles at a young age, a deep affection for Maggi despite (or perhaps, because of) parental disapproval, and its key role as an after-school snack, late-night bite in college dorms, or quick meal for the busy professional.

This narrative sounds like the one promoted by the Nestlé corporation itself, which advertises Nestlé as a “friend” to Indian youth and their busy but health-conscious mothers. Following the ban, efforts to restore faith in Maggi noodles reveal an intense affective investment in the product linked with feelings of youthful independence, as seen through the wide appeal of Nestlé’s “We Miss You Too” commercials. Each commercial features a young man or woman speaking “Hinglish” and describing how his or her life has changed now that Maggi is gone. They conclude with the subject speaking directly to the product as a friend. In one, a young bachelor scoffs at his neighbor’s overly-decorated apartment door, and laments that he finally had to become friendly with them in order to get dinner invitations. He concludes with, “I miss you, yaar [buddy]. Come back, man.” The screen fades to the Maggi logo, with the emotional appeal “#WeMissYouToo” written beneath.

 

Illustration of wavy red and yellow lines
Image description: Wavy yellow and red lines mimic the appearance of instant noodles. American Anthropological Association

These ads capture a feeling of intimate familiarity between consumers and Maggi noodles. The noodles hold a particular place in the hearts and minds—and on the tongues—of Indian youths and young professionals. We thus have to pay attention not only to the meaning that eating noodles has for people, but to the feelings, the affective investments, in eating the product. We understand Maggi’s appeal because it is a product unlike any other—bright turmeric yellow, with a distinctive “masala” taste. Yet the reason why Maggi has elicited such strong loyalty across class and caste lines has proved difficult to establish. The sociologist Amita Baviskar (2018) argues that it may be because Maggi noodles represent a freedom from caste hierarchies and regional identifications, and offer a taste of modernity for aspirational classes. Additionally, for many middle-class Indians, packaged food marketed by a multinational corporation is associated with hygiene, and free of the suspicion of contamination associated with food-handling practices in restaurants and among street vendors.

In a country where cuisine varies by religion, caste, and class within the same city or village, and where places even 50 miles apart possess distinct food cultures, the popularity of Maggi lies in its infinite ability to be customized. The noodles are sold in different flavors and contain flavorings and spice mixtures that can be added to the noodles during or after the process of cooking. But most people use the noodles as a base to which they add other ingredients like meats, vegetables, eggs, and other spices (Faisal 2019). With important exceptions, the main staples in most parts of India—rice, wheat (eaten in the form of chapatis), or millets of various kinds—were not historically consumed in the form of noodles. The places in India where noodles have a long history are the northeastern states and in northern regions that are adjacent to China. In south India, noodles have been used to make upma, a popular snack typically made with cream of wheat, and they are also used in parts of north India to make a milky dessert (kheer). But unlike the northeast, they do not constitute an everyday food.

Thus, there is an element of novelty about noodles that allows them to enter foodways without historical baggage—associated with particular castes, or specific regions, or set times in the ritual calendar. When you combine this novelty with its association with modernity, its ability to be absorbed into narratives of upward mobility by poor and lower-middle class people, and its easy cooptation in youthful rebellion and independence, one can start making sense of the incredibly fast ascent to popularity of Maggi noodles among young people.

The Maggi ban initiated an intense debate over food safety in India that mirrors other such controversies worldwide: What counts as “safe food”? Who decides? Who should be held responsible—the government or producers and manufacturers?

Following the ban, this narrative of Maggi as foundational to Indian youth culture had surprising staying power. Yet something changed. Precisely because Maggi had struck deep emotional chords and found a place in the hearts of many young people, the revelation that the noodles were contaminated left many Maggi fans with a feeling of betrayal, an uncomfortable inkling that maybe their parents had been right all along. Ananya, a reporter for transnational news agencies who was based in Bengaluru, was particularly adamant that she had lost faith in a product and company that she had previously held dear. As a child growing up in Delhi, she fought with her parents regularly over her love of Maggi. Her father, ironically an employee of the Central Health Ministry, was adamant that Nestlé was using creative advertising to target children. Ananya’s relationship with Maggi gave fodder to his critique: she received a basket of Maggi products on her birthday every year when she was in primary school, with a note from “Sanjeev Uncle.” She was unsure why Nestlé cultivated this close relationship with her, and hypothesized that it could have been because she was born in 1984, the same year that “Maggi was born,” as she put it. Whatever the reason, she felt that she had a close relationship to Nestlé, and would sometimes write Sanjeev Uncle with her feedback, or participate in competitions to come up with innovative Maggi noodles recipes. She remembers suggesting a “grilled Maggi sandwich” one year.

This feeling of familiarity made Ananya especially upset about the Maggi ban. When she first read about the lab reports, she explained, “I couldn’t come to terms with the fact, initially, that Sanjeev Uncle could do that. Really, a company like Nestlé could do that?” It seemed impossible, after “we’ve been so loyal to the company.” When asked whether she would again consume Maggi when it came back on store shelves, she said, “Not in the current form. And I really need an apology from them.” For the time being, she was substituting noodles with thin strips of roti, exactly what her mother used to do when Ananya was a child. Ananya noted that cut this way, the rotis look a bit like noodles, but, she lamented, “they taste nothing the same.”

Learning that Maggi was potentially dangerous shook Maggi fans like Ananya and Jyothi. They had spent years fighting their parents (and later, their husbands, who were indifferent to Maggi) about their noodle consumption, only to have their parents’ fears confirmed. In many ways, though, the Maggi ban hastened a transition they felt was already underway as young women professionals who were ready to start families. Jyothi said that the Maggi controversy confirmed her newfound distrust of all “packaged food,” which she now avoided as an aspiring mother. Maggi, like products from “ketchup to frozen meat,” are full of dangerous additives, she suggested. Now that she no longer ate them regularly, she felt she could “smell the preservatives.” Ananya said that as she has gotten older, she has come to appreciate her grandmother’s preference for traditional foods like millets. As she put it, “Somewhere along the line we gave it all up for the fast food or the instant foods, and we’re going back to it.” Post-ban, she saw Maggi’s “2-Minute” tagline with new eyes—as her grandmother would say, “If something is rushed, it must be done by a thief.”

In a country where cuisine varies by religion, caste, and class within the same city or village, and where places even 50 miles apart possess distinct food cultures, the popularity of Maggi lies in its infinite ability to be customized.

While Ananya’s and Jyothi’s frustrations were directed toward Maggi noodles as a product and Nestlé as a company, they captured a much broader sense that eating in our contemporary age is an uncertain act. They felt betrayed not only by a corporation, but by a government that was slow to respond, and when it did intervene, managed the situation badly. They were left with the feeling that they were taking chances when they ate convenience foods, and the pleasures of consuming these foods were inextricably linked with a sense of danger and guilt (which, as children, were also part of Maggi noodles’ appeal as a rebellious act). This meant that Ananya and Jyothi both felt confident telling us that they knew Maggi noodles were “bad,” but they also expressed deep sadness that they had to renounce them completely.

Ananya and Jyothi understood that their relationship with Maggi was about much more than the noodles themselves—the salty masala taste was inseparable from memories of youthful rebellion and the cultivation of a sense of self in relation to their families and wider society. These memories made the Maggi ban that much harder to bear, and it shifted their relationship to food overall. The controversy exposed how their deeply personal relationships with Maggi noodles were forged at the intersection of global trade, national and nationalist economic policies, regulatory bodies such as the FSSAI, generational conflict, and a fast-changing youth culture. It was the particular confluence of these factors that positioned Maggi noodles at the center of India’s youth culture, and also made the ban so emotionally turbulent for people like Ananya and Jyothi. As their experiences illustrate, our memories, identities, and tastes are anchored in—and shaken by—the uncertainties of the global food system and the ways that they shape what is in our bowls and on our plates.

Camille Frazier is assistant professor of anthropology at Clarkson University. Her research focuses on food, the environment, and urban development. Her current book project examines concerns about livability at the intersection of shifting food systems, rapid urbanization, and environmental transformation in Bengaluru, India.

Akhil Gupta is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a joint appointment at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He works on questions of transnational capitalism, infrastructure, and corruption, and is currently finishing a book on call centers in Bengaluru, India. His empirical research interrogates anthropological and social theory from its margins by paying attention to the experience of peasants and other groups of poor people in India. He has written extensively on food and agriculture in India.

Cite as: Frazier, Camille and Akhil Gupta. 2021. “Tasting Independence.” Anthropology News website, January 13, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1574

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