It's used 4,600 times a second but many North Americans have never heard of Maggi
The mystery of why the world's most ubiquitous condiment brand is a niche product in Canada and the U.S.
When Daniel Allan was researching Mexican drinks, he came across an unfamiliar ingredient — one that immediately sparked his imagination.
"A sauce called Jugo Maggi," said the 34-year-old former bartender, who lives in Winnipeg.
"My mouth is absolutely watering and so I thought I've got to find this Jugo Maggi and see what it's all about."
He tracked down a bottle in a small grocery store in Winnipeg, poured a few drops on the back of his hand, and licked it.
"Wow, this is intense ... I just knew it had to be in a Caesar," said Allan, who won a contest using Jugo Maggi as a secret ingredient in his adaptation of the classic Canadian drink.
"This sauce is so meaty and rich and big," he said.
"Without [tasting] like — a medium-rare steak per se."
Maggi ranked as a top-five consumer brand globally
Jugo Maggi — more commonly known as Maggi Seasoning — is one of the most popular condiments on earth.
The market research firm Kantar, which publishes a report every year ranking the brand footprint of the world's most recognized consumer packaged goods, pegs Maggi at number three.
That puts the sauce just behind giants such as Coca-Cola or Colgate.
Nestlé, which owns the Maggi brand, estimates that more than 4,600 food portions are prepared across the world using Maggi products every second. Larger markets include Germany, India, the Middle East and Central and West Africa.
Everyone thinks it's theirs
While Canadians and Americans remain largely in the dark when it comes to Maggi, many other cultures likes to claim it as their own.
Calgary restaurateur Shovik Sengupta thought it was from India, where his family originated. He grew up with Maggi Hot and Sweet Sauce, and its taste evokes memories of childhood.
"Maggi entered my life early," said 40-year-old Sengupta, who explained his family would go to India every few years to spend the entire summer.
"There were always Maggi commercials. Sitting in certain restaurants, they'd have chutneys but they'll often have a bottle of Maggi Hot and Sweet at the table."
Sengupta is co-owner of Calcutta Cricket Club, a hip restaurant on Calgary's famous 17th Avenue SW, and said he spreads his love for Maggi through the restaurant's kati rolls.
According to Sengupta, the sauce adds a critical "umami" taste to the menu offering.
The secret is umami, via hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates to "delicious, savoury taste."
If there's one thing Maggi is known for, it's adding a little umami magic.
Central to many Maggi products is an ingredient called hydrolyzed vegetable protein, produced by boiling foods such as soy, corn, or wheat in hydrochloric acid and then neutralizing the solution with sodium hydroxide.
"It doesn't sound appealing but it adds such an interesting and essential flavour even to plain rice, that's why it's travelled all over the world," said Maryann Tebben, author of Sauces: A Global History.
Sauces that are popular across different cuisines tend to be versatile, she said.
"The Maggi company allows individual countries to sort of tweak the formula so it might be a little more pungent or a little more salty," said Tebben.
The North American market
So why hasn't Maggi, or any of its 7,000 versions, been able to capture the North American market and become a kitchen staple in every household?
It's a tale of food history — and competition.
Julius Maggi, the Swiss creator and namesake of the Maggi empire, became a pioneer in food production in the mid-1880s when he created a new type of flour made with ground-up peas and beans in Zurich. Soon after came the company's first concentrated bouillon.
An old advertisement from 1895 was found by soy historian Bill Shurtleff, who wrote 40 books on soy-based foods.
It listed Maggi bouillon next to Liebig's Extract of Meat
"They must have been very similar products," said Shurtleff.
But in America, Maggi sauce ran into another competitor — one that had cornered the market a few decades earlier.
"Lea and Perrins got their Worcestershire sauce on every ocean liner leaving and coming into Britain by paying the head steward a fee for each bottle that he took," said Shurtleff.
"People who were on those liners who were obviously wealthy tasted this thing like they'd never tasted before."
By the time Maggi came around, Shurtleff said America had gone through a Worcestershire sauce craze. Imitations had popped up all over the country and the New York Times archives from the latter half of the 19th century are peppered with legal notices from Lea and Perrins challenging the imitators.
The taste of meat — without the meat
There is one final detail that could help solve the mystery of why Maggi isn't as popular in North America.
Maggi was created to add a meat-like, umami flavour to food.
Pulses — the main ingredient in Maggi's early creations — were seen as a solution to improving the lives of Swiss workers, because in Nestlé's words, "nutritious meat was beyond their meagre budgets."
Though Nestlé Canada declined to comment on its marketing strategy, from the beginning Maggi seasoning has been advertised as a vegetarian product.
Maggi creates a meat flavour without a hefty price. It's an irresistible promise for many places in the world, but less so in North America.
"We are used to getting our flavour ... from things like steak and hamburgers and other types of meat," said soy historian Shurtleff.
North Americans eat the real thing
Americans and Canadians still lead most of the world when it comes to meat consumption per capita.
"We are addicted to meat," said Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution at Dalhousie University.
"Number one, the socio-cultural factor. Basically, it's part of our diet," he said.
"Two, wealth. You need wealth in the economy to eat meat."
In addition, North Americans are often not enticed by offal or organ meats, including traditional dishes from Anglo-Saxon cultures such as black pudding, head cheese and haggis. That reflects our abundance of expensive meat in recent history, and with an abundance of expensive meat — Maggi is not a necessity to add umami.
Not only can we skip the entrails, we don't even need the seasoning.
Because who needs Maggi, when you've got steak?
Written by Falice Chin.