If you think McDonalds sells the same burgers and fries everywhere in the world, think again – here in Asia they’ve had to make some concessions to local tastes and come up with some peculiar fast food variations on Asian favourites
It all started with the Samurai Pork Burger. I saw this advertised outside a McDonalds in Bangkok back in 2004 and was somewhat perplexed. Why is it a Japanese name when I’m in Thailand? And what do Samurai have to do with pork? Actually, why is it called Samurai at all? Sadly, I never actually found out any of the answers, but it made me start paying closer attention to McDonalds everytime I went to another country in Asia.
If you’re wondering why I even frequent McDonalds when I’m travelling in the continent of tremendous cuisine, the reason is threefold: 1) Sometimes you’re so tired or cultureshocked or plain lazy you just want something completely familiar to eat in an airconditioned, relatively clean environment, however bad it may be for you; 2) McDonalds is actually a great place to peoplewatch because, funnily enough, all the locals go there; and 3) it irks po-faced travel purists no end, so that’s always a winner. (There is a great explanation of why eating at McDonalds while travelling is not to be sneered at by Rolf Potts, with an equally interesting addendum by Pico Iyer, both of which save me having to rewrite it here).
Perhaps more traditional for Thailand, the Thai Spicy Fish McDippers are a piscine breadcrumb and chili overload. Incidentally, don’t actually expect to eat your fast food in Thailand fast – you will inevitably be handed your burger but have to wait five minutes for your fries, which will be dutifully brought to you – by which time, of course, you’ve eaten your burger…
In Singapore, the national obsession with rice extends to having rice cakes in your burger.
I expected lots of interesting stuff in a Japanese McDonalds – McTentacles perhaps – but the menu was disappointingly ordinary
Although there were these – seaweed flavoured fries. Yum.
In Hong Kong, I nearly got arrested for taking this photo of the Green Tea and Red Bean Ice Cream Sundae. Didn’t realise they guarded their secret bean recipe quite so zealously.
In Indonesia, as the world’s largest Muslim country, chicken is far more popular than beefburgers (and, of course, the Samurai Pork Burger would be completely taboo). Hence you get combo sets of chicken, rice and Coke.
Perhaps my biggest WTF moment (Weird and Troubling Food, naturally) in McDonalds was in the Philippines, when I spotted the clotted mess that is McSpaghetti. (McDo indeed). My Filipino friends explained to me that it was an incredibly popular dish and basically consisted of spaghetti soaked in sugar. Ewwww.
I also seem to remember that when I first went to Australia in 2003, there was a Billabong Burger that had beetroot between two patties. Sadly (or perhaps thankfully), I don’t have any photographic evidence, though it tasted as grim as it sounds.
My most memorable experience of McDonalds in Asia, however, is when I stumbled into a MaccyDs in Chongqing, China. I’d just completed an excruciating trip up the Three Gorges on an overloaded passenger boat that played earsplitting soap operas the entire journey, and I was in need of comfort food. Chongqing is a vast city with a mindboggling 31,000,000 inhabitants – and that’s just the official figure – and arriving there just as dusk began to fall was somewhat intimidating to say the least. Things were not helped when I arrived at the front of the McDonalds queue dishevelled and hungry, and found, much to my horror, that the universally understood phrase of “Big Mac” was not understood here.
Managers were summoned despite (or perhaps because of) my increasingly strident pointing at the overhead menu, until a Chinese teenager behind me stepped up and got me exactly what I wanted in 20 seconds flat. He spoke a little English, and I could tell he wanted to practise so I invited my culinary rescuer to join me and we had a great if slow conversation about his life in Chongqing. “Chongqing is great”, he said. “But I want to go to America”. “Why?” I asked. He broke into a beam of a smile and said “Because I want to meet Christina Aguilera!”
That conversation rescued what had otherwise been a grim day, and makes me smile everytime I recall it. And it wouldnt have happened if I hadn’t gone to McDonalds.