Indian

This Nostalgic Tomato Sauce Will Always Have a Place in My Pantry

On Maggi Hot & Sweet, one of the most consistent food relationships of my life.

November  1, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

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“in the early 90's, paired with cloyingly sweet Nescafe instant coffee Maggi memory #2. Tamarina tamarind sauce - I've been guilty of hoarding 1/2 a dozen bottles when it disappeared off the desi store shelves for a couple of weeks.”
— Panfusine
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Yup, the sauce.

An Indian veggie burger is incomplete without a generous layer of Maggi. Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

Do you have a favorite Maggi memory? Tell us in the comments below!

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Her life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects (and altogether too many spices) that serve as her emotional anchor, no matter the living situation. She's an impassioned ambassador for life in Brooklyn, and a fierce critic of the vast amounts of cream cheese on a New York bagel.

5 Comments

Panfusine November 4, 2019
Maggi memory # 1. Survival at IIT-Bombay was dependent on a Maggi kiosk that doled out Maggi noodles for 2 rs. in the early 90's, paired with cloyingly sweet Nescafe instant coffee
Maggi memory #2. Tamarina tamarind sauce - I've been guilty of hoarding 1/2 a dozen bottles when it disappeared off the desi store shelves for a couple of weeks.
 
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Arati M. November 7, 2019
Ah, the survival kit of choice for anyone who lived in a dorm in an India uni :) Maggi and Nes'coffee'.
 
Nomaste November 3, 2019
Sorry, By TomChi I meant referring to it that way.
 
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Arati M. November 7, 2019
You bring that back to me now, I had a friend call it that!!
 
Nomaste November 3, 2019
I love hot and sweet, and I felt that a humble mention of the infamous TomChi was warranted. Regardless, loved the story!