Fast food, here, there and everywhere

For better or worse, the hamburger is the ultimate American food

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

For most of us, it seems that McDonald’s ® has been around forever.

And for most of the world, the ultimate “American food” is the basic fast food trinity of hamburger, fries and milkshake.

The McDonald’s logo is the most recognized symbol in the world, likely due to the fact that there are locations in over 120 countries.

Some foreign McDonald’s franchises offer McDonald-ized versions of local food.

I’m not a huge fan of fast food in general, but some of these adaptations/ reconstructions of local menu items strike me as genius and wonderful while some gross me out beyond belief.

When I travel, I want to experience local food so I rarely go to McDonald’s (or other American fast food places) but I also know that when homesickness hits, there’s nothing like that familiar chrome, tile and plastic formed furniture – and of course, that familiar – almost universal – menu.

And, in many countries, McDonald’s has that crucial feature that any weary traveler (especially those with kids) needs most of all – a relatively clean and public bathroom.

The most widely recognized logo in the world. Image courtesy McDonald’s ®
The most widely recognized logo in the world. Image courtesy McDonald’s ®

So, if you happen to be travelling this spring or summer, without injecting my opinion, here are a few culinary treats only available at McDonald’s in certain locations.

In Russia, you can get breaded shrimp as a substitute for fries. In some China McDonald’s you can get a beef patty topped with bacon and mashed potatoes on a standard burger bun.

In Australia and New Zealand, to get your monthly sugar dose in one sitting, try the Bubblegum Squash McFlurry. Squash means marshmallows in this case—marshmallows topped with bubblegum syrup.

Soft serve ice cream blended with marshmallows and bubblegum-flavored syrup.

Or if you happen to be in Peru, don’t miss the Chicha Purple Temptation. It’s a dessert made from locally indigenous blue corn and chicha morada (a local popular – and delicious – drink).

In Malaysia you can order a Prosperity Burger and even a companion drink – the Prosperity McFizz.

In Turkey you can find an Apricot Sundae and in Columbia you can find a Pineapple Oreo McFlurry.

As you might guess, it’s a soft serve ice cream blended with Oreo and pineapple filling.

This mash-up of crunchy cookie and pulpy pineapple may sound a little strange, but it’s a big hit across Latin America.

French customers can order a caramel banana shake.

In India, as you might guess, McDonald’s offers a full range of vegetarian options, and they specialize the cooks in the kitchen — people cooking meats, such as chicken, don’t cook the vegetarian dishes.

There are many others, of course, including an Ovaltine ice cream dessert in Brazil, but as you might guess, the McDonald’s food scientists and market researchers are always at work developing ever-new taste sensations.

The many ironies of eating at McDonald’s while travelling always seem to converge over me – even as I just walk by – and see that the place is almost always packed with Americans.

When I lived in Beijing, there was a McDonald’s that was in a market district, far from the tourist areas, but it was a popular place on weekends for birthday parties – and it was one of the (very) few places with a public bathroom.

The menu was striking because it was a pure American menu. No rice or Chinese food whatsoever. People went to McDonald’s for the pure American experience.

After all, why would order rice (or any other local food) there (usually for about triple the price) when you could get it around the corner far fresher and cheaper?

Americans eat anywhere and any time.
Americans eat anywhere and any time.

For a little perspective, there are more than 36,000 McDonald’s around the world. They serve approximately 69 million customers each day (and supposedly 75 hamburgers each second) and employ about 2 million.

In 1955 Ray Kroc opened his first location in Illinois (the original restaurant opened in California in 1940). By 1965 the company had 700 locations across the USA. And in 1967, McDonald’s went international – beginning with Canada.

McDonald’s might seem like they are everywhere, but there are even more Subway sandwich shops (many of these are tucked away in larger stores or malls). Subway has about 44,000 stores (in 112 countries) as of late 2018.

KFC has about 20,500 locations in 125 countries, while Starbucks has 24,000 stores in about 75 countries.

The tsunami of American-style fast food has swept over the landscape of virtually every urban center around the world, but it did have a beginning.

For a little perspective, the first McDonald’s opened in;

USA: 1940, Canada: 1967, Japan: 1971, Germany: 1971, Australia: 1971, France: 1972, UK: 1974, Brazil: 1979, Italy: 1985, Turkey: 1986, China: 1990, (by 1999, there were 40 McDonald’s in Beijing alone) Russia: 1990, Indonesia: 1991, Saudi Arabia: 1993, South Africa: 1995, India: 1996, Pakistan: 1998 and Vietnam: 2014.

As with any food, McDonald’s fits in with some cultures and not at all with others.

There are several countries who, for their own reasons, do not have McDonald’s – or in some cases – not fast food at all.

Iceland had three McDonald’s prior to their currency collapse in 2009. In the interest of health – and supporting local industries – McDonald’s has been effectively banned.

The whole point of having a McDonald’s, from the franchise owner to the parent company, is to make money. In some place that is not likely – or even possible. And in some places, like Yemen, it is exceedingly dangerous – even an invitation to terrorist attacks.

Bermuda bans McDonald’s — but not just McDonald’s –  there are no fast food restaurants permitted at all. Bermuda also bans neon signs and billboards.

North Korea bans McDonald’s – but not for the Dear Leader – who has them literally smuggled in from China on an as-needed basis.  (1*)

Kim Jung Un also has a taste for Pizza Hut and KFC which he orders from a Chinese border town.

Bolivia had one McDonald’s until 2014. It went out of business after operating at a loss.

Macedonia had seven McDonald’s until a major dispute between McDonald’s European offices and the Macedonian franchisee owner.

Ghana doesn’t have a McDonald’s for the most pragmatic of reasons – most people can’t afford it. The average annual income is $1,340.

Virtually nothing from McDonald’s is locally sourced so the menu, by community standards, can be quite expensive. When I was living in China, several years ago, a typical hamburger cost a full day’s pay for an average worker.

Zimbabwe doesn’t have a McDonald’s for a variety of complex, interwoven economic, political and philosophical reasons.

For most of us, imagining a life without burgers, fries and milkshakes seems almost inconceivable.

We might have the impression that fast food is not good for us. As always, to every rule there is an exception.

We might think that we invented fast food, but Asia has had it for millennia - but it looks like this. These are sliced lotus roots.Photo: Morf Morford
We might think that we invented fast food, but Asia has had it for millennia – but it looks like this. These are sliced lotus roots. Photo: Morf Morford

When I was living in China I was teaching writing and English at the university level. I had one student who wrote an essay titled “Why McDonald’s is the perfect food for Chinese people”.

At first I thought her premise was ridiculous. As I read her paper though, I realized that she was right – in a culture whose diet is based on rice and vegetables, the McDonald’s emphasis on fat and protein was the ideal complement.

We might take McDonald’s for granted, but for better or worse,  it is our enduring message to the world.