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The Noodle Brand That Will Not Die

In India, customer loyalty to Maggi seems to endure, despite a food safety scare

Photos: Peter Adams/Getty; Maggi noodles, official

Maggi is liquid gold. Maggi is curry-flavored magic, my childhood in a bowl. Maggi is perfect when soupy, perfect sans broth, perfect even straight out of the fridge. What Maggi is is this — a brick of instant noodles that you crack in half over boiling water, then cook with a flavored powder that looks like straight-up turmeric and tastes like 2,000 percent of your daily recommended sodium intake. Maggi 2-Minute Noodle is a phenomenon: In 2014, according to Fortune, Indians consumed 400,000 tons of it.

Maggi originated in Switzerland, was later acquired by the Swiss-owned Nestlé, and began import to India in 1983, just 36 years after the country became independent from colonial British rule. By the early 2000s, Maggi had found a frantic, loyal consumer base in metropolitan India. It’s unclear what Maggi’s curry flavor is supposed to represent, since no Indian curry I’ve ever tasted bears a passing resemblance: I have to assume it must be that European-adjacent brand of nuclear yellow curry, heavy on nondescript “curry powder” and low on any depth of flavor. But Maggi’s appeal lies in its potential for customization — no one I know eats Maggi as-is. My friends make it with fried garlic, red chile powder sprinkled on top. My mom cooks hers with cut-up hot dogs. As a kid, I liked mine with peanuts, doused in ketchup. These doctored dishes are now an indelible memory for a generation of consumers, nostalgia wielded as a powerful marketing tool.

But in 2015, Maggi was also at the center of a massive food safety scandal, during which the noodles allegedly tested positive for high lead content, and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India issued a brief, nationwide ban on all Maggi products. Nestlé India has long maintained the product is safe, and that its own testing at the time “consistently show[ed] levels in Maggi Noodles to be within permissible limits.” And despite the negative press, Maggi retains a devoted fan base.

From Delhi to Mumbai, outside train stations and office buildings, street vendors dish up ladlefuls of Maggi swimming in curry broth. Up from the northeastern state of Sikkim and all the way down to Pune, college students and young professionals congregate at cafes for chai and noodles made-to-order, with crispy onions, bright red chile pepper sauce, or a whole fried egg. Butter chicken Maggi, tandoori Maggi, and paneer chile Maggi are all common offerings, the noodles fortified with meat, vegetables, and spices drawn from Indian and Indo-Chinese cooking.

Many fast-casual restaurants offer some variation of the Maggi samosa, with noodles replacing the usual potato filling. The Mumbai-local homestead Pure Milk Center popularized a Maggi dosa: a thin, crispy crepe, stuffed with cheese and Maggi noodles. The Mumbai chain Hungry Head came up with Misal Maggi, a reimagining of the Maharashtrian classic Misal Pav, with crispy-baked Maggi subbing out the traditional crunchy sev. It also serves a Maggi bhel, riffing on the classic puffed-rice snack, and an exhaustive menu dedicated to Maggi noodle mashups.

When Hungry Head opened the first of its two locations in Mumbai, Nestlé wasn’t too bothered to see yet another small cafe making a profit off its products. Technically, no restaurant is legally allowed to use the trademarked Maggi logo in its branding or promotion, but Hungry Head obtained legal permission, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, which allows the use of the logo and name with slight alterations. The restaurant has since remixed the copyrighted “Maggi™” into its “Magizza,” “Magburger,” and “Magbhel.”

“When we got popular in Bombay, they approached us,” says Hungry Head chef Arpit Kabra, with a hint of pride. Hungry Head catered for Nestlé’s corporate events, but after a while, Nestlé changed its strategy, opening small kiosks called Maggi Hotspots “after seeing our success, and our experimentation with Maggi,” Kabra says. The Hotspots hoped to capture consumer attention in what a corporate spokesperson called “the out-of-home space,” a strategic attempt to lure the same diners that street stalls had been cultivating for years.

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Then, in June 2015, the health scandal broke. An inspection by a local food-quality lab found a sample of Maggi that allegedly contained shockingly high levels of lead, in addition to containing monosodium glutamate (despite advertising, on its package, that Maggi does not contain any added MSG). The lead news spread across the country, and one by one, state governments began issuing bans against the noodles. Media coverage of the scandal was unforgiving, with news personalities debating the possibility of corruption or interference from a political party; the supposed threats posed by Western corporations in India; and the specific vulnerability of India’s children and youth, an important Maggi demographic.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India eventually ordered a nationwide recall of all Maggi products, deeming them “unsafe and hazardous for human consumption.” Nestlé countered by voluntarily withdrawing the noodles, insisting they were safe but citing “an environment of confusion for the consumer.” Within a few chaotic weeks, a national ban was issued and Maggi was off the menu.

Without Maggi, India’s culinary landscape was left frenzied for alternatives. “We had to the face the Maggi ban,” Kabra says. “And we survived, with the loyalty of the customers, having trust in our brand.” Hungry Head rolled out an updated menu which included pasta, fried rice, and other non-noodle offerings. “We had to introduce certain other dishes, to compensate for people who were not ready to eat Maggi.”

In August 2015, Nestlé petitioned the Bombay High Court, which lifted the national ban but demanded further lab tests. After multiple tests found samples to be compliant with regulations, Maggi was released back on the market. Fortune estimates that the health scandal cost Nestlé half a billion dollars, including lost sales and PR damage to the brand; the massive product recall cost $70 million to implement.

Nestlé is currently facing a class-action lawsuit worth $90 million in damages over unfair trade practices and false labelling, which the Supreme Court reopened earlier this month. In a statement, Nestlé stated it “welcomed” the recent Supreme Court decision, which would allow a test conducted by the Central Food Technological Research Institute to decide that suit. According to a Nestlé spokesperson, CFTR lab tests proved the samples to be compliant with all health regulations: “We have carried out extensive tests of our Maggi Noodles in India in addition to our regular testing of the finished product and raw materials, confirming they are safe for consumption.”

Despite media hysteria and clamoring politicians, customer loyalty to Maggi did not wane. Maggi still holds a majority share of India’s instant-noodle market, and Nestlé has seen a healthy recovery at the Bombay Stock Exchange since the ban was lifted. Kabra says that even during the national ban, customers would wander into Hungry Head hoping that the restaurant would somehow still be serving noodles, Prohibition-style. They would say, “Aap ke paas toh hoga: You are directly dealing with the company, so you must have it in stock!”

I ask Kabra if he had any insights on Maggi’s enduring popularity. “People remember their Maggi experiences, when they were in hostels, or at home, the late-night hunger,” he says. The Nestlé corporation seems to agree: The ads I remember watching on TV featured scouts cooking over a campfire, teens in a dorm room, a mother sneaking broccoli into her kid’s plate of Maggi. Re-watching these ads now, it feels like the images were pulled from a half-synthetic memory of my own half-imagined childhood: I can’t be sure if I’m remembering real experiences, or just a memory of watching the ads themselves.

Nestlé’s comeback strategy makes a calculated appeal to this shared nostalgia. Right after the national ban was announced, the corporation rolled out an ad campaign featuring a group of young people waxing poetic about how much they missed Maggi, and later, a rotating cast of mothers promising that the noodles were safe for children to eat. When asked what Nestlé’s plans are moving forward, a spokesperson said the brand was “taking proactive steps to continue to reassure consumers of the safety of Maggi noodles through a campaign in India.” The spokesperson cited recent print ads in both English-language and regional publications, with a tagline that draws attention to how long Nestlé has been around: “Enjoy your Maggi, loved and trusted for 35 years.”

Before we end our conversation, Kabra launches into a story from his childhood, of midnight cooking with his cousins during family vacations, dumping butter, oregano, and processed cheese into the pot to make some an Italian-curry fusion Maggi. It sounds like a story straight from an ad campaign. It may not be that peanut-ketchup Maggi that I grew up eating, but I have to admit, it does make my mouth water. If you can’t make your own nostalgia, store-bought will do.

Sheena Raza Faisal is a writer from Mumbai, currently living in New York.
Editor: Erin DeJesus