Vasundhara Chauhan

Gourmet Files: My mate, Marmite

That attractive jar.  

I was 13, zero exposure, brought up on reading — books and magazines. We were so short on entertainment that we read anything. The printed word was consumed with ravenous hunger, and when library books were finished, we read any magazine within reach, including advertisements, from beginning to end. This is how I heard about things whose existence we in India had no idea of. Velveeta, Campbell’s soup, Kellogg’s, Kraft… and Marmite.

Vasundhara Chauhan

The advertisements drew a picture in impressionable young minds. “Add Marmite to your favourite dishes for extra goodness and flavour mmm… tasty” “The Making of delicious Soups, Stews, Gravy, Pies — all meat and vegetable dishes” “Spread Extra Goodness with Marmite at tea-time. Oh goody, Mum’s making Marmite sandwiches for tea!… Marmite makes delicious savoury snacks, as well. Try it on hot buttered toast, cut into fingers. Add a little Marmite to the cheese sauce next time you make Welsh Rarebit. Marmite. For goodness and flavour.”

The ads in those days were quieter, and Marmite’s was often on one of the black and white folios. Despite the modest appearance, I read each word. And was seduced. I imagined how deliciously savoury it must be and, by association, imagined those English soups and stews. Welsh Rarebit I found in my mother’s cookbooks, but though she gave us grilled cheese toast, it lacked the cachet of rarebit. Having never eaten Marmite, the very linking with savoury snacks was like watching a food programme today on the then non-existent TV. Gravy was the smooth brown sauce that Ma served separately with a pot roast and we slathered on to roast baby potatoes, freshly smashed. Delicious, and a very evocative and good association. Pies? Even better, and though I’d never eaten a pork pie, Enid Blyton had educated me and I imagined it, improved with the addition of Marmite.

So one afternoon, when my mother and I were visiting my favourite aunt — her sister, my masi — we sat in the winter afternoon in her vast garden. Masi had just returned after some years in England. The gap between lunch and tea was large and I was famished. I was sent to the kitchen to make myself toast. The sisters probably wanted a private conversation without Big Ears around. It was the hour when servants weren’t about, so I had the run of the kitchen. I found the fixings for my toast and lo and behold, spotted a jar of Marmite on the sideboard. I can feel again, 40 years later, the rush of excitement and happiness I felt then. That fat black jar with its bright yellow lid and label was unmistakeable. This was serendipity. So I ran out, asked — because I was a good girl — if I could help myself, and they said I could but sparingly. I made my toast, buttered it, and then spread Marmite on it. They weren’t going to know how much I had taken, so I was generous. I spread it so thick that it was a visible sheet. And when I took the first bite, I understood. The salt level was so high that it was excruciating, almost bitter. For years I wondered whether the English were mad and if the advertising industry had any ethical standards. How could they mislead an innocent brown child so.

Until a few years ago, very few shops stocked it, and charged unconscionably high prices because “imported hai na, ma’am”. Then they started manufacturing it here, came a cropper, and seem to have stopped. And who can blame them. First, the public needs to be educated about its optimal use, and second, a jar goes such a long way that the expiry date is reached months before the jar is empty. And that’s so because, as I’ve discovered, all you need on one toast is a smidgen, and also because the taste isn’t to everybody’s liking.

“Umami”, the food word of the last decade or so, is the best description of the taste of Marmite. I could write a poem about the taste of the black bitumen-like gloop thinly spread on a crisp brown toast that’s so hot that it helps spread the Marmite. There’s no need for butter and, when I want a treat, I add a cold, thinly sliced red tomato on top, crack some black pepper on it, and I have a meal to satisfy the most discriminating gourmet.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 8:37:58 AM |

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