Yeast Obsession: Kiwis and Marmite

The earthquake of September 2011 shut down New Zealand’s production of its beloved Marmite, manufactured by Sanitarium Health Food Company in a Christchurch facility that was severely damaged. There was a collective despair when Marmite suddenly became scarce, Sanitarium going so far as to urge Kiwis to use it sparingly, even rationing it. That was like asking a Kiwi rugby fan to follow the All Blacks once in a while. In the meantime, Australian Vegemite, a similar product, would have to do, requiring a bit of pride-swallowing to rely on a substitute from across The Ditch.

What is this love affair over a product that appears closer to decomposing sludge (some say fish fertilizer) than something one would willingly put on morning toast? Marmite is essentially a concentrated yeast extract, a by-product of the beer brewing process. Aside from its dubious appearance, thickly pasty and almost black, it has a strong cheesy odor. Its high concentration of glutamic acid makes Marmite an umami superstar, which southeast Asians use to good effect in some of their dishes. It also contains enough vitamins and minerals to merit consideration as a health food. Though Marmite was created in England, the NZ product of the same name uses a modified recipe, sweeter and less intense than the UK version, which is sold in the U.S.

Although a 175-gram bottle of Marmite is small, it lasts a long time for a normal devotee, much less for legions of Kiwis who consume it like butter on toast. The temporary shortage caused by Mother Nature created a yeasty situation. Fortunately, Marmite is back in full production. Our grandchildren enjoy Marmite toast with margarine. I too have become quite fond of it. I will be taking a jar of it home with me.

Addendum: My daughter happened to have jars of Marmite and Vegemite on hand, so she had my wife and me undergo a taste test. Vegemite to me had a strongly vegetal taste, quite salty. Marmite was sweeter, more meaty tasting (almost like beef bouillon) and metallic. Kiwis will be happy to know that all three of us prefer Marmite.


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