Malty Milo Is the Taste of Childhood Around the World
Children in Malaysia and Singapore know that dinosaurs still roam the streets. So does Godzilla. From within kopitiams (coffee houses), mobile vendors, and vans parked outside schools, these delicious monsters emerge. Ice-cold, milk-chocolate-colored Milo drinks are the after-school quenchers of choice. The whimsically named "Dinosaur" is made with a generous heap of dissolved Milo, condensed milk, water, and ice with a mound of grainy Milo on top. In its "Godzilla" form, whipped cream or ice cream smothers Mount Milo.
But what is Milo, those who grew up in the United States, or swathes of malt-less European territories, may ask. Your friends who grew up in Australia, New Zealand, parts of Asia, West and Southern Africa, and South American countries like Colombia or Peru can tell you, so let’s start with a little Milo 101. It’s brown but not chocolate, it’s good for a boost if you’re an active six-year-old but it's an equally lovely adult beverage to snuggle with on cold nights before bedtime—especially with a shot of Kahlua. Milo is not necessarily a smooth ride. People who have issues with texture may have to opt out because when Milo is prepared with cold milk, the rough granules bob to the surface defiantly. Even with hot milk or hot water, a few errant Milo nubs float about.
So what’s Milo made of? According to Nestlé, the manufacturer: malted barley, sugar, cocoa and milk powder with seven added vitamins and minerals, including iron, vitamin C, calcium and vitamins B1 and B2.
Milo tins have over the years remained faithfully, reassuringly, deep green—somewhere between a pine tree and an Eastern green mamba snake, adorned with an energetic sport-playing cartoon boy, usually a footballer. Punted as a drink that gives you energy, Milo was named after the Olympian wrestler Milo of Croton who was envied for his brute strength, having won a dizzying six Olympic events in the 6th century BC The original Milo was rumored to drape a bull on his shoulders like you would a shawl, and roam about for hours a day as practice. Myths and legends aside, our folks doled out the morning Milo like it was an easy-chew vitamin.
Australian Nestlé food scientist Thomas Mayne developed this versatile drink in 1934, to be prepared with either hot or cold water or milk. Milo’s core market was undernourished children growing up during the Great Depression. Mayne reportedly drank a glass of Milo until he died at age 93.
For us kids in South Africa, Milo was both mandatory consumption and a luxury. Many of our families used to serve it for its purported essential vitamins and minerals, but today’s parents, occupying an anti food pyramid or "carbs are the devil" world may balk at the sugar content. A controversial video that went viral this year claimed the Malaysian-manufactured Milo contains 40 percent sugar and that one serving equals the total daily sugar allowance recommended for an adult by the World Health Organization.
In our home, for reasons of economy, my mother was thrifty with her Milo spoon and used an austere combination of hot water and a splash of hot milk. My brother and dairy didn't mix well anyway, and it became his elixir of choice right through university, with our parents sending him a Milo supply along with snacks and provisions. Writer Rachel Khong recounted in a Bon Appetit article how her Malaysian parents would stuff their suitcases with tins of Milo on visits every few years, the drink acting like a bridge between their lives, old and new.
When I recently asked people for their Milo memories, my Indonesian colleague Tika Larasati told me she has a friend send her Milo sachets to Glasgow where she lives now. My friend Liezel Vermeulen demonstrated the difference between a regular spoonful and a Milo spoonful, while London chef Linda Galloway added that the best way to enjoy it is, “with a teaspoon straight from the tin. [It’s] dry and gravelly at first and then it comes together like mud in your mouth.”
Several other friends mentioned the virtue of Milo eaten directly from the can. I put it to the test a few weeks ago; the granules dissolved slowly like sweet cloying cement, coating my mouth thickly. I needed a jug of ice-cold water after that.
Compared to the hot drinks we sipped on as kids, today’s world of Milo appears to be exhaustive—adventurous even: Milo chocolate bars, Milo cereal, packaged cold Milo drinks, cakes, brownies, Milo spread on soft white bread with condensed milk, Milo, sprinkled on ice cream or on smashed avocado, Milo cookies, energy balls and even this fantastic Milo ice ball – a mound of ice slathered in thick, velvety Milo sauce, and topped with a handful of Milo granules.
I do wish we'd known about the Malaysian preference for an extravagant grainy mound on top of the drink when I was a child, instead of the manic stir-stir-stir we desperately executed trying to get the Milo bits to disintegrate. I imagine licking a lavish spoonful of granules would have made our childhood ditty: “It’s marvelous what Milo can do for you!” all the sweeter.
Indulgent Ice-Cold Milo
Makes one glass
2-3 tablespoons (30-45 milliliters) Milo, plus extra for serving
60 milliliters hot water, or enough to dissolve grains
80 milliliters condensed milk
200 milliliters cold milk (full cream, or as you prefer)
4-6 ice cubes (more if you prefer)
A few tablespoons whipped cream or a scoop of chocolate ice cream
In a mixing jug or large mug, dissolve the Milo with the hot water, stirring well until it becomes a smooth paste. Add condensed milk and stir. Top with cold milk and mix well.
Fill a serving glass with ice cubes and top with Milo mixture. Spoon whipped cream or ice cream over and top with a large serving of Milo granules. Serve with a spoon to enjoy the malty Milo bits.