I’ve had McDonald’s in a least a half dozen countries. I’ve had it delivered to my doorstep. I have login credentials at mcdelivery.co.kr and I can order my favorite meal in the time it takes for you to refresh this page. I’ve frequented Burger Kings, had a point card at Subway (and earned free subs), and can tell you the distance to the closest Krispy Kreme Donuts from any part of Seoul. No, I don’t only eat American fast food. I do eat American fast food while abroad. It’s rarely my first choice but it does become an option, especially when juxtaposed with overpriced bread sandwiches in tourist districts of capital cities. I like an indie café and a mom & pop hole in the wall too. I can point you in the direction of the best pajeon, makgeolli, or bulgogi on either side of the Han River. Most Americans can recall more items off of McDonald's menu than they can the full names of all of their first cousins, so going outside of one’s culinary comfort zone can be a challenge. When it comes to food and culture, I think it’s not all bad to stay in your comfort zone, while gradually expanding it.
Everyone knows local cuisine can tell you a lot about a culture, but so can fast food. As the world becomes wealthier and more urbanized, it cultivates a business environment prime for 60 second burgers. The McDonald’s at Sinchon Station and the McDonald’s on Broad and Diamond are both high revenue purveyors of salt, sugar and calories but a quick look inside either location will be a demographic exercise in compare and contrast. Personally I prefer the one in Sinchon. I’ll definitely be addressed with more honorifics at the Korean outpost of the Golden Arches, and I’ll never have to cajole a cashier offering me her sucked teeth and rolled eyes. Both sit at high traffic intersections in their districts of Seoul and Philadelphia and are on the edge of college campuses attracting an interesting blend of locals, hipsters, and temporary transplants. Due in part to Korea’s technological precocity, the Sinchon location was the first McDonald’s in the world to offer made to order gourmet burgers (Create Your Own Taste). It's since made it's way to Manhattan, but it works like this: a customer uses touch screen consoles to assemble a burger to suit their palate. I’ve added all kinds of bespoke alterations: jalapeño peppers, sautéed mushrooms, fried egg. You’re given a buzzer when you pay (you can pay a person or the console), and 597 seconds later a McDonald’s staffer, not a robot, brings you your premium burger, glassed beverage, and slim cut fries stacked in a wire cut basket, offering you a slight bow while saying masikke-deuseyo before retreating back to the register with the buzzing locater device. In a high competitive, tech saturated, customer oriented service environment, such endeavors are promising.
While in India, experiences with Domino’s, Subway and McDonald’s gave me a degree of familiarity in a foreign environment but also helped to illustrate the economic changes the country faced— how food conglomerates “glocalize” their menus and how affordability, taste, and convenience play a role in meals regardless of one’s place in the world. On a day trip south of Mumbai I ordered the #1. In America, that would have been a Big Mac, but in India it was the Chicken Maharaja Burger. Once again, culture played a major role in the menu difference. The emergence of McDonald’s and other fast food players played a testament to— at that time— India’s booming economy and middle class. In a country where tens of millions quite literally can’t afford a happy meal, McDonald’s may not be a bad Tinder date option. It also served as a nice alternative between the what’s comfortable and “What’s that?!”.
When I moved to Korea I didn’t have much culinary preparation. Panda Garden didn’t serve kimchi, though you could order steamed rice, spring rolls, and build a nice inventory of duck sauce with repeat visits. During my time in Korea I had my fare share of American-bred indulgences. However, my go to dish in Korea was dolsot bibimbap. The first time I tried the dish was in Philly years before I ever even thought of Korea (I knew where Korea was, I just didn’t know what it looked like). Upon ordering my rice and vegetables in a hot stone bowl I couldn’t figure out why some of the rice was burnt and why anyone would think that it was tasty. The meal seemed too fussy. The stirring sprained my wrist and the sizzling ingredients burned my tongue. I was neither impressed nor satisfied. But I was curious. I can say with relief that I’ve eaten 20 dolsot bibimbaps for every Shanghai Spice Chicken Burger meal, #5, I’ve had delivered to my apartment. The Korean dish was my local, daily staple. The McDonald’s meal was my occasional fix for something more familiar.
I like food. While in Korea I never ate live octopus for the “shock” value of it or because it seemed exotic. One acquaintance told me that the octopus was bland but the sauce was “soooo good”. I bet that sauce would taste better on a Shanghai Spice Chicken Burger. Dining, whether fast, casual or haute cuisine, is a way to connect people with cultures. Again, I've never eaten live octopus or dog or horse meat, even though they are considered delicacies— though I did try a spoonful of lamb brain once in Mumbai. If you want something less “shocking” or vegan friendly, there's always dosas or naengmyeon. My point is this: I like food that tastes good to me. Eating at an American fast food chain while abroad doesn't always have to be some shameful vice that will make you a culturally obdurate basic. It can be a comfort when you're on the edge of homesickness, or a taste of convenience at moments when you can't be bothered to play Russian roulette with your tastebuds.