Front of a shop window in Senegal in the colors of Maggi.
They’re usually on a spice rack somewhere between salt and nutmeg. Small ocher cubes wrapped in gold aluminum foil. One cube alone can make 5 deciliters of broth. efficient. However, efficiency comes at a cost, which will be covered in more detail later.
It all started with a medical challenge. “For centuries the British and French navies have been looking for products to combat scurvy, a disease caused by malnutrition. Research has been conducted to develop an infusion similar to vegetable soup. The pharmacies on board have these drugs ready to feed the sick,” said Pierre-Antoine Dessaux, a nutritionist and culture lecturer at the University of Tours in France.
In 1908, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Swiss entrepreneur Julius Maggi began to sell the cubes we know today on a large scale. Prep has evolved into an industrially manufactured kitchen aid sold under the brand name Maggi (part of the Nestlé Group since 1947).
Julius Maggi (top left) popularized his product with an effective marketing campaign.
Products composed of salt, flavor enhancers such as glutamate, oils and aromas began a real triumph in the 20th century and were purchased by more and more households. A large advertising campaign will help make a logo with yellow letters on a red background iconic.
controversial little cube
However, this product has its drawbacks. “The family at the time thought this soup was nutritious. It’s actually just salty and not very good nutritionally,” says Pierre-Antoine Dessaux. Especially on the African continent, it’s pushing out regional culinary traditions. Long-dominant West African “sumbala” seeds are crushed and fermented. “It is used to enhance the flavor of sauces served with grains,” explains Monique Chastanet, a historian and nutritionist at the Institut des mondes africains (IMAF) in Paris.
This seasoning not only enhances the flavor, but is also very nutritionally rich. This is not the case for the industrial Maggi Cube as the concentration of sodium glutamate far exceeds the recommended amount. “We face public health risks today. Excessive salt intake is a real problem in our population increasingly suffering from cardiovascular disease,” said Cameroonian Chef Christian Abégan.
Abégan wrote a book on the colonization of tastes. In many traditional dishes such as Thiéboudienne and Poulet Yassa, industrially produced golden squares were widely used in ingredient lists. «Because of that, we are gradually losing the cursiveness of some recipes of our motherland. Bouillon cubes are becoming a habit for chefs who no longer take the time to make the sauce and brown the onions,” says Christian Abégan.
On the way to the new cube?
Bouillon cubes are a staple in African cuisine for many, but are losing ground in Europe. Sales figures are falling. The factory is moved to Eastern Europe.
In Africa, the opposite is true. Once imported, the dice are now made in 12 factories across the continent, with around 100 million sold every day. But there are also counter-movements. Young chefs from Africa and the diaspora are questioning their use and working to create a healthier, more local “new cube”. Re-appropriation of the national cuisine story.