They are usually on the spice shelf, somewhere between salt and nutmeg: small, ocher-yellow cubes, wrapped in gold-colored aluminum foil. One cube alone makes five deciliters of broth. Effective. But efficiency comes at a price, but more on that later.
It all started with a medical challenge. “For centuries, the British and French navies have been looking for a product to fight scurvy, a disease caused by malnutrition. Research has been done to develop infusions that resemble vegetable soup. The pharmacies on the ships have equipped themselves to feed the sick, ”says Pierre-Antoine Dessaux, a professor of nutrition history and culture at the French University of Tours.
It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, in 1908, that the Swiss entrepreneur Julius Maggi began to market the cube on a large scale, as we know it today. The preparation evolved into an industrially produced kitchen aid sold under the brand name Maggi (part of the Nestlé Group since 1947).
The product, which consists of salt, flavor enhancers like glutamate, oil and spices, began a real triumph in the 20th century and was bought by more and more households. Large advertising campaigns help make the logo with the yellow letters on a red iconic background.
But the product has its disadvantage. “Back then, the families thought these soups were nutritious. In fact, they taste only salty and are very poor from a nutritional point of view, “says Pierre-Antoine Dessaux. On the African continent in particular, it also rejects local culinary traditions. and then fermented. “It is used to enhance the taste of sauces served with cereals,” explains Monique Chastanet, a historian and nutritionist at the Institut des mondes africains (IMAF) in Paris.
This spice not only enhances the taste, but is also very rich in nutrients. This is not the case with the industrial Maggi Cube, as the concentration of monosodium glutamate far exceeds the recommended amount. “We face a risk to public health today. Excessive salt consumption is a real problem for our population, which is increasingly suffering from cardiovascular disease,” says Cameroonian chef Christian Abégan.
Abégan wrote a book on the colonization of taste. In many traditional dishes such as Thiéboudienne and Poulet Yassa, the industrially produced golden square dominated the list of ingredients. “Because of him, we are gradually losing the handwriting of some recipes from our homeland.” The cube of broth is becoming a habit for chefs who no longer take the time to brown onions with spices to make a sauce, ”says Christian Abégan.
On the way to new cubes?
While the broth cube is a staple in African cuisine for many, it is losing ground in Europe. Sales figures are declining. Factories are relocated to Eastern Europe.
In Africa, the opposite is true: Once imported, the dice are now made in a dozen factories across the continent, where about 100 million are sold every day. But there is also a counter-movement. Young chefs from Africa and the diaspora are questioning its use and trying to create “new cubes” healthier and more local. Repropriating the national culinary stories.