“Ha? Maggi is not Malaysian?” my mum exclaimed when I told her about writing this piece.
It’s a common misconception. In Malaysia, ‘Maggi’ is almost synonymous with ‘instant noodles’. Around two million packs are sold daily. You’ll find sup Maggi in Malay warungs, topped with all manner of vegetables, meat or seafood. You can judge a mamak restaurant by the quality of its Maggi goreng (best served with telur mata on top, trembling egg yolk still intact). At least two generations of Malaysians grew up eating Maggi.
But here’s a reality check: Maggi noodles isn’t a Malaysian brand – it’s Swiss.
Where did Maggi come from?
Health and nutrition isn’t something we generally associate with instant noodles, but they feature prominently in the founding of Maggi – at least according to its corporate history.
Maggi’s history goes back all the way to the late 1800s, where Dr. Fridolin Schuler, the first Swiss federal factory inspector, wanted to improve the health and living conditions of the working class. He believed that legumes were the answer to malnutrition and high infant mortality, as they were affordable and rich in nutrients. This inspired a mill merchant, Julius Maggi, to create a legume-based flour. The flour was not a commercial success, but Julius Maggi went on to create other legume-based instant soups and seasonings – the first Maggi products.
Julius Maggi was reportedly an “endless innovator”. He was responsible for the brand’s trademark yellow packaging. He experimented with mock-turtle flavoured instant soups and truffle seasonings. He designed the unconventional shape of the seasoning bottle, which you’ll still see in products sold in Malaysia today. And bizarrely, he was “fascinated by clairvoyancy” and believed that he could see into the future.
By the First World War, Maggi had become an international food manufacturer. Nestlé, another little-known Swiss brand you’ve probably heard of, acquired it in 1947.
Entering the Malaysian market
Maggi instant noodles finally reached Malaysian pantries in 1972 with localised chicken and kari flavours – still the most popular flavours today. Its entry into the Malaysian market coincided with the increase of female participation in the labour force from the 1970s. Working mothers – who were pressed for time, had hordes of hungry children to please, and were caught in the cultural expectation that they should perform the bulk of domestic labour – would have turned to convenience foods like Maggi.
Working mothers are still one of Maggi’s target audiences today. A 2018 advertisement depicts a mother reading several post-it notes from her daughters throughout her working day. The notes read: “Mak balik awal!” or “Mum, come home early!”. The daughters are overjoyed when she comes home early, and everyone proceeds to cook Maggi noodles together in a montage of domestic bliss.
Children were a target audience in these ads too – they gleefully tucked into bowls of noodles after school or sports practice, but not before chanting the Maggi jingle, “Mee Maggi, cepat dimasak, sedap dimakan!”, or “Fast to cook, good to eat!”.
I can’t help feeling a twinge of nostalgia as I rewatch these old ads. When I was a kid, we always had a pack of Maggi tucked away in a cabinet. Maggi was a fancy breakfast on a Saturday morning, the perfect antidote to late night hunger pangs, or a bonding ritual during sleepovers. My mum forbade me from drinking the soup (a serving of Maggi asam laksa contains 1458mg of sodium, or 73% of your recommended daily intake); so I would wait until she turned a corner, then savoured every last drop of the MSG cocktail until the bowl was empty and my lips were tingling from the spice.
Maybe I’m embellishing. I can’t quite remember if all those memories involve Maggi, or some other brand of instant noodles. But such is the power of Maggi’s nostalgia-heavy marketing – watching their ads or reading their paid advertorials harkens back to memories of food, family and childhood – real, imagined or warped to fit Maggi’s narrative.
Today, Malaysian consumers have a lot more choices when it comes to instant noodles. Apart from local competitors like MyKuali and Mamee, there are also Indonesian, Korean and Japanese ones on supermarket shelves. And if your preferences lie towards more niche offerings, you can get imported ones on sites like Shopee. Yet Maggi still leads the pack, with Nestle commanding 45.9% of the Malaysian instant noodle market share.
How do you like your Maggi?
Nobody buys Maggi chicken-flavoured noodles expecting it to actually taste like chicken, nor do they expect Maggi kari or Maggi asam laksa to taste or feel like the taste or feel like the dishes they were inspired by.
But that’s part of Maggi’s appeal – what you get instead is a sort of blank canvas (albeit MSG-laden enough to be palatable on its own), a culinary choose-your-own-adventure that offers infinite customisation. Crack an egg over it, melt a slice of cheese or add in some kimchi – the choice is yours.
So, what’s your favourite way to have Maggi? Let us know in the comments.