Maggi is an umami-intense all-purpose seasoning, and according to Jack Carneal in his recent article in Lucky Peach, it has come to "define the taste of Malian cuisine." Maggi is used in everything from traditional tige dege na to spaghetti sauce, and at this point, Carneal says few people remember how Malian food tastes without this mass-produced seasoning. Good or bad, it sounds like Maggi is here to stay.
Carneal describes Maggi this way: "...It gives every dish the same three characteristics—a soy-sauce-like umami, explosive saltiness, and the odd sweet-savoriness of monosodium glutamate." And yet, it's clear that Carneal holds a grudging respect for the seasoning, even admitting that he misses it on the rare occasion that it's absent in a dish.
It would be easy to bemoan the loss of traditional Malian cooking for this cheap short-cut, but Carneal makes an argument in Maggi's defense. He says the seasoning isn't about faster cooking or even, necessarily, cheaper cooking; it's about function. "Fridges are rare and freezers unheard of," he points out, "There's no luxury appliance for storing savory stocks or stews." This doesn't fully explain how dishes were seasoned pre-Maggi and why this was abandoned, but presumably, Maggi cuts down the food waste from using other, more perishable seasonings and cooking methods.
But it also sounds like there's a simpler and more basic human explanation: the seasoning just tastes darn good. Like our American fast food, the more you eat it, the more addictive it becomes.
Have you ever tried Maggi? Blessing or a curse?
"Bien Manger" by Jack Carneal appeared in Issue 3 of Lucky Peach (subscription available here)