The McRib may be back, but how would you like to try a Maharajah Mac, McCurry Pan, or Wasabi Filet-O-Fish?
They may sound like the kind of faux-McDonald’s dishes you'd see in a comedy film set in India or somewhere in Asia, but, believe it or not, they’re actual items served at McDonald's restaurants in - surprise, surprise - India and Asia.
Turns out the company that some critics assail for cultural hegemony and insensitivity doesn’t impose its entire menu on other countries. Instead it takes a “when in Rome” approach, creating dishes that reflect local traditions and sensitivities.
“We try to be culturally relevant,” says Leslie Bailey, Senior Director, Food Studio and Menu Solutions for McDonald’s Asia, Pacific, Middle East and Africa.
McDonald’s has always been certain of its identity, and will always remain true to it: a Western fast-food restaurant with Big Macs, burgers and fries as its core DNA. But Bailey says "we’re cognizant of and respectful towards the cultures we interact with.” That translates into incorporating local seasonings or spices into existing items, or swapping out components of familiar dishes, replacing them with local ingredients and reassembling them into something that is at once familiar and exotic.
Take the Mala Grilled Chicken Sandwich, which is sold in China and made with Sichuan mala chili seasoning. Mala comes from two Chinese characters meaning “numbing” and “hot”. “Some believe that unless you’re bright red and crying, you’re not eating mala,” laughs Bailey. “Ours has the mala taste profile without the intensity,” he says. It’s a kinder, gentler mala. It’s a McMala.
Since Hindus, to whom cows are sacred, constitute about 85 percent of India’s population, chicken replaces the two all-beef patties in a Maharajah Mac. Sixty-five percent of India’s population is also vegetarian so there’s Chatpala McAloo Tikki, a spiced pea and potato patty with sliced tomatoes, onions and vegetarian mayonnaise, and the McCurry Pan, a bread boat filled with vegetables and curry sauce.
Locally-focused dishes stay mostly within their own borders, but the Indian ones have migrated successfully to the Middle East due to large ex-pat populations there that hail from the Subcontinent.
“Dishes that resonate move about,” explains Bailey, "but they’re rare.” Before joining McDonald's, Bailey earned “Chef of the Year” accolades in the British Royal Air Force and won the Professor John Fuller Trophy for outstanding achievement in military catering. It's a background that gives him the kind of experience needed to satisfy the masses.
“We look to develop comfort foods based on local foods, tastes and textures that the consumer wants,” he says. “Our customer wants more than just Western tastes.”
That’s why Taro Pie trumps apple pie in China, Korea has a Bulgogi Burger and the Ebi Filet-O - named for the Japanese word for "shrimp" - is Japan’s version of our Filet O’ Fish.
Bacon N’ Egg Twisty Pasta and Grilled Chicken Twisty Pasta, both based on congee, a thick rice-based porridge served that is a Chinese breakfast staple are wildly popular in Hong Kong.
Chris Young, Senior Director, McDonald’s Global Menu Solutions, ate his way through Italy sampling each region’s artisanal delights. The result was The 280 Parmigiano Reggiano burger, made with Italy’s famous cheese and a new type of roll.
“Europe is more a bread culture than America. American buns are light and fluffy. We wanted to appeal to Italians’ sense of what’s important,” says Young. So his team developed a stone-oven baked ciabatta roll with a split top, open cell structure and dusting of flour.
McDonald’s polled Europeans on their definition of a “premium gourmet burger.” Turns out that Europeans prefer meat with a coarser grind and a thicker chew than Americans do, and well-textured, crusty bread. Sauces, cheese or toppings didn’t even make the list. “It was all about simplicity and that surprised us,” said Young. McDonald’s successfully marketed the resulting M Burger as having an “adult taste.”
The Great Tastes of America campaign even let European chains turn the tables and create their own versions of American-themed burgers. The UK produced burger interpretations of New York, Miami, New Orleans, Texas and Chicago. New York, Miami and New Orleans each started with “a chili, chive and sesame topped-bun” (huh?), while Texas and Chicago buns were topped with cheese. Chicago sported "spicy salsa and cool mayo” but Miami was salsa-free. Texas started out traditionally with peppers and “Mexican salsa” but inexplicably included pepperoni. Japan’s similar Big America campaign yielded similarly perplexing results, a California Burger with “red wine sauce,” and a Hawaii Burger not with pineapple and ham, but with sweet lemon sauce, American cheese, bacon and an egg. Looks like we still have a lot to learn from each other.