HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- American-Vietnamese fusion cuisine for the common man has reached Ho Chi Minh City, and it came by way of the Golden Arches. The first McDonald’s in Vietnam opened this month, bringing in 40,000 customers during its first two days of business.
And the 24-hour drive-through (the first in Vietnam, according to the company!) promises to be distinctly Vietnamese. “On the menu front, in addition to McDonald’s iconic choices such as the Big Mac and world-famous French fries, the first restaurant in Vietnam will launch the McPork line of burgers, especially created to reflect Vietnamese tastes,” explained a news release.
With operations in 119 countries worldwide, McDonald’s understands perhaps better than anyone that everyone likes McDonald’s — especially if it tastes just a bit like something other than McDonald’s.
Welcome to the vanguard of global fusion cuisine: fast food.
Sure, hotshot chefs with Michelin ratings are what come to mind when most foodies think of “fusion.” But those chefs will rarely touch the hearts or stomachs of Asia’s emerging middle-class consumers, many of whom look upon even a $6 value meal not as a cheap convenience but as a splurge to be savored only occasionally.
Thus, an upwardly mobile vegetarian family in Delhi can go to McDonald’s and order a BigSpicy Paneer Wrap, delighting in the chewy Indian cheese. Those in Thailand can enjoy a Chicken Ham Pie — which looks like the classic McDonald’s Baked Apple Pie, right down to the flaky crust. A Malaysian family hoping to get out for a night during the 15-day Chinese New Year might be tempted by a holiday-themed Double Prosperity Burger, two rectangular beef or chicken patties served with raw onions and a fabulous black pepper sauce (yes, I had two last week).
These dishes are not authentic, but in this globalized age what could be more authentic than the fusion of what amounts to American street food and a signature broad stroke of Asian flavor, made available to all?
To be sure, there’s much to disdain health-wise in a McDonald’s meal, wherever it is served. The calories and the cholesterol can be ruinous.
But I’d wager that the calories in street food staples such as Malaysian Nasi Lemak — coconut rice and curry — or a bowl of Shanghai fried dumplings easily rival the caloric mega-tonnage in a Big Mac.
McDonald’s is working on recipes designed to make the Vietnamese indulge, but that’s no reason to think that local Vietnamese food is threatened, just as colonial French baguettes once inspired banh mi — Vietnam’s much beloved warm stuffed sandwiches — it’s possible that something wonderful might emerge between the kitchens of McDonald’s and this most flavorful of cuisines.
Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View.