While traveling, my main focus is always food. I’d say it is over half of the reason that I even leave home. You can learn so much about a culture by its food, and I always dive head first into as much local food as possible. I’m obsessed with street food, and will pretty much try anything. I spend more time learning about local food and researching the best restaurants and places to eat than all of the time I spend on transportation, lodging, and other travel research about a destination. If you’ve traveled with me, or seen my travel photos, my love for food probably isn’t that much of a surprise. When I’m at home, I also have much of the same focus; I live to eat. I try to find the most local, fresh food as possible. It is a rare day that I’d ever eat at McDonald’s or any other fast food chain at home, but when I’m outside the United States, there have been some very memorable visits to American fast food chains. Sometimes, you need a familiar taste from home. American fast food chains just don’t taste like home, they also have so many comforts that you might need while exploring; wifi, clean bathrooms, soda with ice, and air conditioning. It has almost become a traveling tradition, to visit at least one McDonald’s in each country I visit, just to see how much it is the same as at home, and to see if there are any differences. These are some of my most memorable experiences visiting McDonald’s, and the stories behind the moments that pushed me to seek American comfort food instead of seeking out local food.
In Xian, China, my friend and I had just taken a 12-hour overnight train to Xian from Beijing. We emerged from the train station groggy-eyed at about 5:00 a.m. to a giant square filled with traffic: cars, people, tuk-tuks, freezing cold and a smoggy sky. We hadn’t written the name of our hotel down, so we really had no idea what to do next, and regardless of being out of our element, it was 5:00 a.m, everything is a challenge at that time. Then, across the square, golden arches glowing in the polluted air, was a giant McDonald’s beckoning us. We gave each other one look and knew that is exactly where we were headed to gain our bearings. We ordered, got on wifi and found our hotel, ate and rested. The Sausage Egg McMuffin and hash brown tasted identical to those at home.
After arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa, and getting a car to start driving on the other side of the road, temptation hit again. After flying for what seemed like days, well, it actually was days, our better judgment was skewed. We’d left Utah at 5:00 a.m. flew to Johannesburg through Salt Lake, Atlanta, and a fuel stop in Dakar. It was probably 29 hours of travel from our first take off to landing in South Africa. I was with two friends, and my Dad, this being his first time out of the United States. We checked into our gated hotel and got back in the car to go out looking for food. We really should have just had food at the hotel, but where is the adventure in that. We had a car and were set on finding something great. We drove around, seeing places to eat, but not really making any decisions. We were all being indecisive and felt like we were going in circles. By the time we saw the golden arches we are all on each other’s nerves, and starving. We pulled right in and ordered cheeseburgers, fries, and ice cream cones. We were those Americans!
My Mom, friend, and I landed in Singapore a few years ago at about 1:00 a.m after traveling from Utah connecting in Los Angeles and Tokyo, and we were waiting in the airport for a 6:00 a.m flight to Malaysia, which sounds like a good idea to save money on a hotel when you are planning the trip, but in reality is quite a miserable wait through the middle of the night in a freezing cold overly air conditioned airport. Where do you hang out, what do you do? McDonalds, that is what we did. Double fish filet sandwich.
Road tripping and camping through Australia with my Sister and friend, and watching our budget closely, we broke down and ate at Hungry Jack’s (Burger King in Australia) at least once a day. This is when the US Dollar was really weak to the Auzzie Dollar. It was very expensive to eat out in Australia, so we were cooking our own food as we camped, and needed a break from that. We ate the kid’s meal because it was the only thing that fit into our small budget on the menu, and we loved the peri peri sauce for the fries.
While in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I visited the genocide museum. I’d been in Asia for about a month at this point, and was really craving a burger and fries, and I needed to eat my feelings after learning about the Khmer Rouge. Other places had burgers on the menu, but I didn’t quite trust them. I walked out of the museum, and there on the corner was a Burger King, I was trapped. Whopper, fries, and a coke.
During a trip to Bali, before wifi really existed, we’d make frequent stops to the McDonald’s to login to their computers they had available for guests. While looking for things online we’d end up ordering something off the menu. This experience of needing to check in with those at home by selling out to McDonald’s has set new rules for future trips that we weren’t able to seek out internet, if we didn’t have it where we naturally were, then we’d be off the grid until we came across internet or returned to our hotel.
At a cruise port of call in Agadir, Morocco, we needed a break from buffet cruise food, and ended up eating at a McDonald’s. It had a prime location overlooking the beach, and we ate our burgers and fries joking if it might actually be stray cat meat. The beef didn’t quite taste beefy enough.
The first time I went to Hong Kong in 2008 I ended up eating at McDonald’s after my very late arrival. It was my first time in Asia, I checked into my hostel, and needed dinner. I’ll admit that I was a little overwhelmed by the city, and ended up going to McDonald’s for dinner that night because it sounded easy. When I came to Hong Kong to stay for a month this year, there was also once that I ended up eating at McDonald’s. I was out on a run on the Kowloon side, and was starving! My hunger tricked me, and before I knew it I was in the line ordering. Note to self, running and eating McDonald’s doesn’t really mix well.
Recently in Shanghai, I’d accidently booked the wrong Airbnb location. I thought I was booking something in the center of the city, but after further reading the host’s instructions realized that the house was on the last stop on the metro line. My sister and I had been traveling through China for about two weeks and had just taken a six-hour train from Beijing to Shanghai, then another two-hour metro ride to where we were supposed to meet our hosts. They said to meet them at a McDonald’s immediately at the exit to the metro station. We went in to wait for them, starving, and soon ordered value meals.
India might have some of my favorite McDonald’s, mainly because they are mostly vegetarian. You can find quite a few different things on the menu here from burgers made from sweet potatoes, corn, paneer, and other veggie variations. You’ll never find beef on the menu, and in some locations you’ll find chicken. During a three week trip to India, my friend and I ended up visiting a few McDonald’s when we were craving a little variation in our Indian diet. After the end of the trip, we’d tried everything on the menu (not sure if that is a true accomplishment) The menu items included the McAloo (potato burger), McSpicey Paneer (fried Indian cheese), Pizza McPuff (basically a hot pocket), Peri Peri Fries (fries with peri peri spices), Mac Maharaja (the veg Big Mac), McVeg and the McEgg (fried egg with onion and sauce). We ended up branding our visits to McDonald’s as our American Date Nights. We’d go to McDonald’s for dinner, then see a Bollywood movie. At one point, we ended up taking our scooter for about 10 miles through traffic just to find the Mcdonald’s and movie theater.
Other variations exist all around the world to help the menu adapt to local tastes. In Dubai, I tried the McArabia, that was a pita/wrap of sorts, and the veggie Big Mac. In Southeast Asia, you’ll find chili sauce next to the ketchup, double fish filets, and double Big Macs (bun, two patties, bun, two patties, bun.) Of course in France, there are macaroons at McDonald’s that are actually pretty good. In Hong Kong, and most of China, you can replace your fries with a cup of corn. Also in Hong Kong and China you can get sweet potato flavored ice cream, and popcorn flavored ice cream. Most Asian McDonald’s have as much fried chicken on the menu as beef, they have to compete with the sometimes more popular KFC, and local eating customs that avoid beef consumption. Indonesia even has a plate of spaghetti to accompany their fried chicken offering. For breakfast in China you can order congee, and fried bread. Congee is an oatmeal/porridge meal, and the fried bread is much like a scone that is used for dipping in the porridge.
It is now a habit for me to at least peak into a McDonald’s in each country I visit, just to look at the menu and see what local variations have been added. There are also always the standard menu items, and they always taste exactly the same. The fries, the Big Mac, no matter what, they are an exact replica of what you can get at home.