Simmering stock cube battle shows evolving West African tastes

DAKAR, Feb 19 (Reuters) – Mamy Gueye conjures up her version of thiebou diola – a marinated fish and rice dish, served with green sorrel leaves – at a roadside eatery in Senegal’s capital Dakar.

Her way of cooking, using traditional methods with a mix of shop-bought flavourings, is a demonstration of how cooking and shopping habits are evolving in West Africa.

She douses filets of sea bream with lemon juice and garlic, and then crumbles a few Maggi stock cubes, each costing 25 CFA francs ($0.04), into a bowl of chopped onions to make sauce.

As the mixture cooks down, she chucks in a cube made by rival Senegalese brand Doli. “It adds a good garlic flavour and a touch of sugar,” Gueye, 41, said.

Since they were introduced by Nestle in the 1950s, Maggi cubes have transformed cooking across the region – providing a boost to flavours that need a careful and often time-consuming juggling of herbs and spices.

They have become an essential ingredient in many everyday dishes, including Ivory Coast’s “poulet braise” and spicy “jollof rice” in Nigeria.

Maggi still dominates West Africa’s stock cube market – valued at $375 million by market research firm Fact.MR.

But local upstarts also are getting a taste of the market, fuelled by the continent’s demographic boom and a budding middle class who have more cash to spend on food and higher expectations when it comes to taste.

Across Dakar, six wholesalers and retailers said they were buying more local brands in response to rising customer demand for different flavour varieties of stock cubes and powder to complement the Maggi classics.

Senegal’s Patisen, which makes Doli, also has branches in Ivory Coast and Nigeria. It aims to double bouillon production by 2020, its president, Youssef Omais, said.

But, like in many countries, a focus on food provenance and authenticity is growing, partly due to concerns over health, and advocates are pushing a return to traditional cooking.

In Abidjan’s five-star Pullman hotel, chef Loic Dable prepares pepe soupe, a spicy fish and vegetable stew. He flavours it with chilli paste and sumbala, a fermented locust bean patty.

Before stock cubes, he said, “you cooked fish in sea water to make it salty, and served it with cassava and plantains, which you either braised or baked in the earth”.

Some consumers have cut back on stock cubes because health experts say the salt in them can contribute to heart problems.

Senegal limited the salt content of all cubes to 55 percent in 2017, the first country in West Africa to regulate their components. Nestle says it had already reduced Maggi’s salt content, after the World Health Organization published guidelines on salt consumption in 2012.

Health concerns aside, however, taste is still the bottom line for Lucie Teihi, who sells braised chicken at an outdoor grill in Abidjan. She is sticking with Maggi cubes.

“If my chicken is bland, customers will go elsewhere,” she said. (Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in London; Editing by Alison Williams)


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