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In My Family, Marmite Is a Unifying Force

The dark lord of condiments is the stuff of controversy and colonization, but we love it anyway

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A jar of Marmite against a red backdrop. Lille Allen

I have no memory of not absolutely loving Marmite. There’s no lingering childhood trauma of cringing at the smell or gagging at the taste — just a multi-generational, post-colonial Marmite love-at-first-sight story.

Marmite may have been dividing the Brits for more than 100 years before David Cameron dangled the idea of Brexit, but the roots of the savory yeast-extract spread actually date back to 19th-century Germany, where a scientist discovered that leftover brewer’s yeast could be made into a concentrate and eaten. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that a Swiss immigrant started packaging and selling that extract, Marmite, in England.

In my own family, Marmite has been a unifying force, gumming down friction between generations and in-laws; I’ve watched it bind my Kashmiri mum and her half-Madarasi brother-in-law as they swapped tips and tricks on the best shops to find the last available jar. Given that they’re two Pakistanis from families with no Marmite in their DNA, I’ve come to suspect that a relationship with Marmite is less about either instant hate or an “acquired” taste and more about how you’re introduced to it.

Unlike my first tooth or first steps, no one documented my first bite of Marmite — shocking, I know. But I like to imagine my mum reaching across our dining table to offer me a bite of toast glossy with butter and black streaks of Marmite, wordlessly initiating me into the “love it” club.

Over the years, I found myself reaching for Marmite to add oomph to my breakfast, where it turned buttery toast and fried eggs alike into something transcendental. It became my yeasty fix to bleh days, poor choices the night before, and monthly nausea alike.

I still feel like an excited child whenever I recreate my mum’s palak anda, which is fried or buttered toast smeared with Marmite and leftover spinach curry, topped with a spicy fried egg, and dotted with more Marmite. Back in Pakistan, if we have palak for dinner, I can count on my mum to stash away a few spoonfuls of garlicky spinach for breakfast the next morning. The dish illustrates how my mum’s family married Marmite with the foods of Pakistan, an ex-British colony that didn’t even make it into the Commonwealth, to build their own traditions.

When my mum was growing up, Marmite was her family’s breakfast staple, but she and her siblings never thought to ask how it became part of their Kashmiri mother’s culinary repertoire. When I was growing up, the spread fit so perfectly into our food rituals that I didn’t question how it entered my own mother’s life, either. When I finally did, the answer quieted me for a while.

Marmite did not become a family tradition thanks to a souvenir of a fun London holiday. Like the quinine tonics I love and the language I call my own, the presence of Marmite in my family’s meals is just further evidence of our colonization.

It came in the same way that indigo, spices, art, and textiles were taken from pre-partition India — the British empire. The British added Marmite to their soldiers’ rations during both world wars, and many of those conscripts were from the Indian subcontinent. And of course, they stocked it for homesick Brits in their colonies, where it also used to treat anaemia. An account by a former Indian spy mentions they were served Marmite soup at a Shimla boys school years after the British left. Marmite, then, was just among the dregs of the British Empire that continue to run through our lives, its presence unquestioned in the same way that old habits and rituals are taken for granted. No one asks why the fork is to the left of the plate or why Pakistanis spend millions to import chai.

After the British split the region into India and Pakistan and seeded their fledgling armies, my grandfather, a brigadier doctor, would take his wife shopping at the military canteen. The shop was so nondescript that when I was growing up I never would have guessed that was where my grandmum bought Marmite, instead of her travels abroad.

I am still steadying myself from the shock. No doubt the B12 and folic acid from Marmite on toast, cheese toasties, over and under eggs and in my broth will help me recover.

If you’re not from a former British colony, you might know of Marmite as a gimmicky condiment, something that pops up on an “Americans try British food for the first time” reel on TikTok or YouTube. Or you might know it and think you hate it.

If my ode sways you even a tiny bit, find a jar and try it, or try it again. Don’t eat it neat, just put a dab on your favorite greasy snack — think grilled cheese or mac and cheese or popcorn. Or add it to vegetarian stew or sauce for an umami oomph.

Even better, find a Marmite devotee. We are always on the lookout to initiate people into the unofficial Marmarati, where love for the dark lord of condiments runs deep enough for me to look past its marauding empire origin story and brainstorm my next Marmite conquest.

Halima Mansoor is a breaking news editor who sees the kitchen as a revolutionary space. In addition to documenting food, she is on a mission to trace her food heritage, explore immigrant cuisine, and initiate more people into the Marmite club.