Six years ago I arrived in New York from India. I carried with me: far too many clothes, an envelope full of medicines (and a list of matching ailments in my mother’s fastidious writing), five kinds of lentils, four chhonk essentials, and a bottle of Maggi Hot & Sweet wrapped in three layers of T-shirts.
“Who in their right mind carries a glass bottle of ketchup to the U.S.?” my father had asked when I was still packing. “The customs guys will kick you out before you even enter.” Side note: My father panics every time I carry anything out of the ordinary on an international flight. However, even he was persuaded to bring me a stovetop pressure cooker in his suitcase once.
I made it through customs, but three weeks later, as I absent-mindedly reached for the bottle, it fell to the ground and shattered.
For you to understand my devastation, I need to tell you this: Maggi Hot & Sweet has consistently been one of the most important food relationships in my life. The school-lunch omelet sandwiches, the sneak-out-of-bed late-night chips, the road trip dhaba chow mein, and the date-night sesame shrimp toasts all had one thing in common.
Yup, the sauce.
Maggi Hot & Sweet isn’t technically an Indian sauce, although it was made for Indians. It came to us via the Swiss company, Maggi, a maker of bouillon cubes and instant soups that dates back to the late 19th century. Some decades after being acquired by Nestlé in 1947, the company arrived in India, and by 1983 had launched the runaway success that was its instant noodles.
One of Maggi’s early products was another rich tomato ketchup with a very distinctive tangy taste. “Take the best qualities of ketchup—salt, umami, the equilibrium of flavors—then enhance them tenfold, and you have Maggi (tomato) ketchup,” describes Priya Krishna, food writer and author of Indian-ish, in an ode to another Indian culinary quirk: the ketchup sandwich.
For me, however, the even bigger coup was the subsequent launch of its variant: the Hot & Sweet Tomato Chilli sauce. It was ketchup, but tangier, sweeter, spicier, and bolder. Much bolder. For people struggling to place a finger on the exact flavor, the company had a canny explanation: "It’s different.” Their commercials ran—and still do—with the same hit messaging.
That was genius branding, because it really isn’t like any other sauce. The list of ingredients on the back of the bottle includes chile powder, dehydrated garlic, and ginger, but I can taste a wider spice spectrum—cumin perhaps, asafetida, even amchur. It’s sort of like Heinz tomato ketchup and Indian saunth (a sweet tamarind chutney used for chaat) had a baby that somehow also bore resemblance to a Thai sweet chile dipping sauce.
So, is it a sauce or a ketchup?
The thing to understand is that most times, Indians will use the words “sauce” and “ketchup” interchangeably. And in this case, it makes complete sense because Maggi Hot & Sweet is, in fact, both condiment to serve with and sauce to cook with.
My partner-in-palate and fellow writer in New York, Iva Dixit, uses it to cook her mother's recipe for dry chile paneer, into which she recommends emptying no less than half a bottle! “It's the only tomato sauce I use—I’ll add it to anything that needs sauce, and even things that don’t,” she says.
In fact, there's very little that Maggi Hot & Sweet doesn’t make better. There are days when I’ll coax a few drops out of the bottle with my finger—and lick it clean. It’s the quickest fix for the sinking feeling of homesickness that strikes unannounced.
Which is why, when I lost that bottle to my clumsiness six years ago, the loss was sharply felt. For four long weeks. Until a friend recommended that I look in Kalyustan’s, a specialty Indian grocery store, for a replacement. There, amid the Vicco turmeric skin cream, the Badshah garam masala, and the party packs of Parle-G biscuits, I spotted it.
It’s hard to describe now, but in that moment, when I grabbed the bottle and held it close to me, it plugged a hole in my heart.
I haven’t lived in India since, but I hear that Maggi now sells the sauce in a handy pouch pack size called pichkoo (loosely translated as “squeezie”). I’ll have to bring
30 emergency packs some back on my next trip over and squirrel a few away in every handbag, coat pocket, pantry shelf, and office desk. If you ask nicely, I might even share—and remind you that the finger-licking at the end is very necessary.