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Travel Cultures Language

Cultural Differences of the Fast Food Kind

by Meredith Mullins on May 18, 2015

Desserts in a Paris McDonald's restaurant, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

Sweet Dreams
© Meredith Mullins

McDonald’s: From Le Croque McDo to McSpicy Paneer to Matcha McFlurry

Yummm. Rows of macarons in their inviting soft pastel palette. Rich chocolate cake. Little canelés rising like flour fortresses. Tiramisu. Cheesecake. Cookies. Lemon tarts.

Where are we?

In a sweet dessert dream? In a prominent Paris patisserie? In the restaurant of a Michelin-starred chef?

We could be. But, in fact, we’re at a McCafé, a part of the McDonald’s ambiance in France that brings all the lusciousness of French pastries and desserts to its fast food counter. From croissants to muffins to traditional French pastries, they’re all here for the (fast) taking.

McCafé at a Paris McDonald's restaurant, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

McCafé in a Paris McDonald’s
© Meredith Mullins

Changing Times

I remember when a McDonald’s finally came to our town (somewhere around high school for me). The golden arches rose majestically and seemed to be lit from within. We looked on in awe.

Fifteen cents for a hamburger. Ten cents for a drink. The brightly colored restaurant quickly became an after-school hangout, and our parents’ carefully-planned healthy cooking became a distant memory usurped by an all-beef patty on an oh-so-soft roll.

McDonald’s turned 75 last week (May 15). The company has grown from a single BBQ stand in San Bernardino, California, to more than 35,000 restaurants that reach out to local tastes around the world. From a single burger to the Big Mac to the Quarter Pounder to a range of new offerings, the menu changes with the times and tastes.

Man with McDonald's quarter pounder, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image © David Taggart)

A thumbs-up favorite: the Quarter Pounder
© David Taggart

Fast Food with Cultural Roots

In the McDonald’s restaurants around the world, the menus adapt to the culture and tastes of the locals. Traveling Americans like to have a familiar place to eat—a place where the lingo is known and where there are reminders of “home.”

The familiar burgers and fries are available in 119 countries. But when the menu relates to the culture and traditions of the country, the flavors appeal to the locals, as well as to the visitors.

The McFalafel from McDonald's in the Middle East, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image courtesy of McDonald's)

The McFalafel
Photo courtesy of McDonald’s

Far Flung Flavors

Looking at McDonald’s menus across cultures is a travel adventure in itself, as well as a lesson in diversity.

From Le Croque McDo in France to the McSpicy Paneer in India to the McSausage Burger in Germany to a little sprinkle of seaweed on the fries in Japan, each menu adapts to the tastes of the country.

A McDonald's in Israel, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image © Mark Sebastiani)

A kosher menu in Israel
© Mark Sebastiani

There is a kosher menu in Israel. There is a vegetarian menu in India. And there are creative recipes in every country that provide good clues as to what local folks like to eat.

  • The Ebi Burger or Ebi Filet-O in Japan, Singapore, and other Asian countries—a whole-shrimp crispy patty, served with lettuce and a spicy sauce in a Big Mac bun.
    Le Croque McDo, a sandwich on the French McDonald's menu, showing cultural differences of fast food. (Image © McDonald's)

    The very round Le Croque McDo
    Photo courtesy of McDonald’s

  • Le Croque McDo in France—a very round croque monsieur, a French sandwich with emmental cheese and ham melted on toasted bread.
  • The McArabia in Arab countries—two grilled chicken patties with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and garlic sauce inside a pita.
  • Burbur Ayam in Malaysia—a breakfast porridge with chicken, spring onions, ginger, shallots, and chilies.
  • McSpicy Paneer in India—a fried curd cheese patty with tandoori sauce, red cabbage, and lettuce on a sesame roll.
  • McLobster in Canada and Maine—lobster salad on a long bun.
  • Spinach and parmesan McNuggets at a McDonald's in Italy, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image courtesy of McDonald's)

    The Italian spinach and parmesan McNuggets
    Photo courtesy of McDonald’s

    McLaks in Norway—salmon filet on a bun.

  • McPinto in Costa Rica—the traditional gallo pinto (black beans and rice) with fried plantain, eggs, and vegetables.
  • Gazpacho in Spain, spinach and parmesan McNuggets in Italy, McFalafel in Israel, and Bacon Rolls in the U.K.
Chicken Maharaja Mac at a McDonald's in India, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image courtesy of McDonald's)

From McDonald’s in India: The Chicken Maharaja Mac
Photo courtesy of McDonald’s

More Clues to the Culture

McDonald’s adapts its menus, but there are other customizations as well. The buildings can show individual style, and the ordering process is also different in some countries.

The McDonald's in Deagu, Korea, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image courtesy of McDonald's)

Modern times at the McDonald’s in Deagu, Korea
Photo courtesy of McDonald’s

The McDonald’s in Times Square hosts a marquis with glittering lights. The Taupo, New Zealand McDonald’s, is inside an old DC-3 airplane. And the McDonald’s in Sedona, Arizona, had to change its golden arches to turquoise at the request of local leaders (a better fit with the palette of the city).

Wooden McDonald's in Paris on rue St Lazare, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

A tall, skinny, wooden McDonald’s with Paris charm
© Meredith Mullins

The ordering processes go from high tech (with a wall of touch screens to take orders and payments) to home delivery in many Asian countries. The fast food chain consistency concept seems to be changing into promoting individuality and personality.

Touch screens at McDonald's for ordering, showing cultural differences in fast food. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

Touch screen ordering in multiple languages
© Meredith Mullins

Oh, I See

There are many ways to learn about cultural differences in the world. The McDonald’s story tells us that food offers a way to connect to another culture.

The next time you’re in another country looking at a McDonald’s fast food menu, you can go one of two ways. You can have a “stay-at-home” familiar burger and fries, or you can choose one of the local menu items. Either way is an adventure—a taste of culture a long time in the making.

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