For the nine years that she worked in the garment industry, sewing buttons, stitching labels and doing sundry other jobs, Sudha H C often turned to a foolproof timesaving aid. Several times a week, when her mornings got eaten up filling water from the municipal tap outside her tiny home in Balajinagara in southern Bangalore, she fed her husband and then-schoolgoing son Maggi noodles for breakfast with minimal time and fuss in the kitchen. She herself relished the noodles and then bundled her son into the school autorickshaw before rushing off to make the garment factory’s punch-in time. On some days, she returned to find that her son had rustled up and snacked on Maggi. On others, when she came back bone-tired from long hours at the factory, she gave herself respite from cooking by preparing instant noodles for dinner — sometimes adding a vegetable or two picked up on her way back from the factory.
It has been two years since Sudha, 38, quit the garment industry and started working as a cook. But old habits die hard. She chops, grinds and steams in the homes she cooks in. But in her own, where she is always confronted with a pile of washing, a mound of dishes and house-mopping, she takes recourse to the Maggi quick-fix. Her son, now a college student, eats it every other day too. “He loves the taste and I like the convenience,” she said. Traditional foods
like idli, dosa, akki rotti (rice pancakes) and ragi mudde (millet mounds) are still part of their intake but if the family had a food pyramid, it would be Maggi occupying the base. Quite naturally, the recent controversy over the high lead content in Maggi has rattled Sudha. “How can I eat the noodles now? They say it is poison,” she said, adding that the stores near her home no longer stock the noodles.
The allure of the two-minute noodles has been the strongest for lower middle- and middle-class Indian women as they stormed into the urban labour force, working in factories, supermarkets and offices in the mid-1980s. For this category of women, who almost singlehandedly manage their kitchens and tend to their children while supplementing the family income by working outside the home, packaged instant noodles have eased the burden of grinding, prepping and cooking traditional Indian foods. Besides the convenience, the cost has been a draw. Instant noodles help busy working mothers save time outside the kitchen too, with elaborate Indian meals consisting of grains and vegetables giving way to “one pot” noodles meals.
Maggi became a huge hit when time became a scarce commodity in urban India and it sat comfortably alongside Indian cuisine, says Chandan Gowda, a professor of sociology at Azim Premji University. “It is Chinese noodles packaged by a Swiss multinational, yet it wasn’t alien at all because it said it was made of atta and dal and came with masala,” he says.
To its already unbeatable proposition, Maggi added “nutritious” in recent years. How is a middle-class working woman to resist a message from glamorous working mom Madhuri Dixit about “taste bhi, health bhi” and the Maggi packaging displaying the words atta, oats and fibre?
Maggi’s absence from the stores leaves a huge hole and many middle-class working women are now going in search of alternatives. Options are few, especially in the Indian foods category. “There are a few Indian brands but nothing gave Indians extraordinary access to an instant meal like Maggi did,” says Gowda, the sociologist. These days, Sudha wakes up even earlier in the mornings to cook shavige uppittu (sevian upma) or ragi rotti (millet rotis) for her family’s breakfast.