Big Macs and beer

Big Macs and beer

Dublin, Ireland

When I was 19 and deep in the throes of my first expat experience, I was amazed to see French diners at McDonald’s drinking beer with their Big Macs. Beer! At McDonald’s! This unexpected collision of the familiar with the exotic at such a tender age made a deep impression on me: since then, I’ve visited the Golden Arches in at least half of the countries I’ve been to. (Some people collect stamps….)

Even though the company’s steady march toward total global domination* creeps me out and the food is — how shall I put it? — bloody awful, I’m fascinated by the way McDonald’s has managed to export a slice of Americana to 68 million people and, by tweaking the product just enough to cater to local tastes, have these good citizens embrace it as their own.

When I tell people about my menu obsession, they’re horrified. But It’s not that I’m clinging to the familiar in a foreign place. Quite the contrary: it’s the differences that interest me.

McDonald's in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

My daughters played the McDonald’s game with me when they were little, although sadly, the anthropological aspect was lost on them — they just wanted the Happy Meals. At the “McDo” In Bordeaux, we could get a burger with Béarnaise sauce. In the “Mai Dang Lao” in Beijing, we ordered fried chicken. In London, “Macca’s” sold fish fingers and cheese & onion bites. In Sydney, we could have asked for Vegemite instead of ketchup. (We didn’t.) I don’t remember what we ordered in Barcelona, because I was too fixated on the bullet hole in the window six inches away from my face to pay much attention.

In addition to appealing to the local palate, McDonald’s sometimes woos its customers by appealing to their national pride. Thus Belgium has Le Belgo Burger (“a creation 100% Belgian that can only be bought in Belgium”), New Zealand has the Kiwi Big Breakfast, Mexico has the McBurrito a la Mexicana, and Turkey has a chicken sandwich on flatbread called the McTurco. (You can’t get a Greek Mac in Greece, but you can in Cyprus.)

Even the side dishes are worth noting. In some countries, “Do you want fries with that?” becomes “Do you want a bowl of corn with that?” (South Africa), “Do you want gazpacho with that?” (Spain), or “Do you want a package of cherry tomatoes with that?” (France.)

McDonald's in Milan, Italy

Milan, Italy

McDonald's in Hamein, Germany

Hamein, Germany

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Here are a few more of McDonald’s culinary pastiches (in fancier places, this would be called fusion):

Malaysia: Ayam Goreng McD (fried chicken.)

Belgium: Beer and Perrier, of course. And for dessert, a delicate apple crumble (not the artery-clogging deep-fried apple pie we get in Canada.)

India: You’re truly spoiled for choice here: the McVeggie, the Chicken Maharaja-Mac, the McSpicy Paneer, and for the kiddies, the McAloo Tikki.

Sweden: Their veggie burger is called the McBean.

Finland: In addition to the usual juustohampurilainen (cheeseburger), you can get a Ruis Feast (cheeseburger on rye.)

Pakistan: The McArabia is a chicken sandwich on Arabic bread. (During Ramadan, McDonald’s is offering a special Iftar deal for the end of the daily fast.)

Italy: The Happy Meal comes with a hunk of parmigiano reggiano.

McDonald's in Shibuya, Japan

Shibuya, Japan

McDonald's in Marrakesh, Morocco

Marrakesh, Morocco

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* McDonald’s opened its first international restaurant in Canada in 1967 (um, thanks?) There are now more than 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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14 Responses to Big Macs and beer

  1. Sally says:

    I tend to look for a McDonalds when we are travelling for a different reason. I have found that more often than not, you can always find a clean toilet there. Unfortunately that is not the case here in Hong Kong(where we now live). Generally the public toilets are really clean and McDonalds filthy! By the way, I’m an Aussie but have to say that I’ve never seen vegemite offered as an alternative to ketchup(or tomato sauce as we call it) in a McDonalds though. It is a spread to put on a sandwhich(like peanut butter) than something you would use as a dipping sauce or condiment.

    • Maria says:

      Filthy toilets in McDonald’s — now that would be a case of culture shock! My daughter works there, and she has entire 6-hour shifts where all she does is clean. Regarding Vegemite, we saw it at breakfast — maybe being spread on toast? (I can’t remember exactly — I just remember seeing the packets on the table.) Having lived in Australia, I have to say it’s an acquired taste I never managed to acquire. My Aussie boyfriend practically bathed in the stuff. We agreed to disagree. :)

  2. Hi Maria,
    This is hysterical! Especially since I have a Big Mac craving about twice a year and haven’t been disappointed no matter where I am in the world… and, Phuket doesn’t disappoint. I can get to our local McDs in about 2 minutes.

    By the way, those special items aren’t just for international diners. In good ol’ Halifax, Nova Scotia (where I’m from), at this time of year, you can get a McLobster!

    Hope all’s well with you,
    Anne :)

  3. I can tell you that the McSpicy Paneer almost redeems the chain in my eyes. I’m looking forward (sorta?!) to reporting on what sort of delicacies await me at Micky D’s in Indonesia.

  4. Lyn says:

    I’m laughing! I was in Hong Kong when the first McDonalds opened and can still order a quarter pounder with cheese in Catonese. The non-beef eating clientele used to order a burger with no meat. It was such a treat to get to have McDonalds on Sundays when the cook was off duty. KFC opened long before Maccas though and served Kentucky Fried Spring Rolls that were great. Sadly the chicken itself was raised on fish meal and tasted more like Ky Fried Fish. It was not very popular amongst the US folks.

    • Maria says:

      Too funny! I was in Vietnam during the bird flu outbreak, and KFC was forced to reinvent itself as KFF. The massive cull of chickens meant that the Colonel was frying fish instead.

  5. Sine says:

    And it’s not just what they serve, it’s also their image that varies wildly with the country you’re in. Whereas in the U.S. McDonald’s is more or less located towards the bottom rung of fast food, it has a cool and hip upscale image in Germany (even did a hundred years ago when I signed up to work at the first ever McDonald’s in Tubingen when it first openend). The McCafe’s are highly successful there and have even contributed at keeping Starbucks pretty much out of German towns, because they can’t compete.

    Oh, and when I worked at the McDonald’s there, the “McRib” was an absolute bestseller. Of course – you’d have to serve pork in Germany! And it came with a curry sauce that I still sometimes crave. We used to cook our own hamburgers in the kitchen and slather them with curry sauce – so much better than the regular kind.

    • Maria says:

      I think they serve the McRib in Singapore. It might even have been a feature here in Canada — I’m not a big meat lover, so I can’t say for sure. But I hadn’t ever considered the status aspect of McD’s before. Thanks for that, Sine. The things I learn from my readers!

  6. I’m guessing McDonalds has a marketing genius in their employ!

  7. I miss the McRib! We had them in the States … and they were a treat (dare I say that?) …. We’ve actually stopped frequenting McDonalds (and only had it TWICE the whole summer in Florida) and have yet to visit there in Singapore. LOVED this post, Maria! So fun to see the differences!

    • Maria says:

      The thing I noticed about McDonald’s in Singapore wasn’t the food, but the way people ate it. Singaporeans keep the paper wrapped around the lower half of their sandwich while they’re eating it. I have no idea why that stuck in my mind or what it signifies, but there you go. Now you’ll have to go, Naomi, just to see if it’s true!

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