As I was flipping through Cluj-Napoca’s local rag Zile si Nopti I came across an advertisement for Subway sandwiches that really stopped me in my tracks. Despite the fact Zile si Nopti is approximately 75% adverts, there was something about this one that was curiously weird.
I mean, just look at it. That’s not the Subway sandwich we know and love. The excessive amount of cold meats, the weird dry-looking shredded up lettuce, the droopy melted cheese, this is clearly a Romanian persons idea of a good sandwich. God knows how Subway manages to tap into the subconscious sandwich desire of a nation, but considering there are Subway outlets in over 100 countries worldwide, they must have the best handle on global sandwich research ever seen before on this planet.
It all came clear when I saw the breaking news section of the above said magazine. For a leading headline the went with ‘Subway: Sandwiches true king.’ It seems that Subway has recently broken ground in Romania, tentatively placing restaurants in the capital Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca. This is incredibly big news. As Zile si Nopte puts it, ‘if we were a doubt as to the positioning of our city on the map of major European urban agglomerations, well, with the opening of the first Subway restaurant in Cluj, you can be sure of the importance and the growing economic power of city in which we live.’
The whole incident put me in mind of my experience backpacking as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, hoping to discover the mysteries of the world and my inner self whilst also being ironic. I hung out with monks in Angkor Wat, I swam with dolphins in Bali, I climbed in the foothills of the Himalayas. But somehow it was the fast food restaurants that stuck most vividly in my mind. They were also probably the closest I came to discovering the true mysteries of the world.
For example, I though Ronald McDonald had been firmly buried due to the fact the a grinning paedophile clown is now considered an unwholesome element in a place of eating. But no, he is in fact alive and well, living in exile in other countries.
Here he is seen lounging with the locals in Singapore:
And here he is making the traditional ‘wai’ sign and wishing a pleasant “Sawadee ka’ in Bangkok:
He is even seen hitting the surf in Bali. Totally tubular:
However these Ronald’s are primarily for the benefit of gurning backpacker photographs. They are merely the tip of the iceberg. On the whole, fast food chains find they can export the American Dream in its purest form: the BigMac, Coke and fries. But during their quest for absolute world domination they found that even this winning formula occasionally needs a little tweak.
Hence, the falafel BigMac in Egypt drenched in a ‘secret sauce’ (tahini and garlic.) Sounds infinatly more tasty.
‘The Nürnburger’ from Germany, served with a healthy dosage of mustard.
The vegetarian ‘McCurry Pan’ in India where beef burgers just don’t fly.
Rather than let weird religious or cultural dietary restrictions stand in their way, fast food chains embrace them wholeheartedly to their bosoms. You can get a kosher subway sandwich, a halal BigMac, a soy milk Starbucks. Whatever your race, creed or food intolerance, there is a place for you in their happy global family.
Take this Subway Ramadan offer for example. Ramadan should be an unmitigated disaster for Subway; the Islamic month of fasting in which participating Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during daylight hours to practice patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God. Instead, customers in Lahore are invited to stuff their faces with Subway sandwiches as soon as night falls. What better way to keep those food cravings at bay during the day, knowing you can settle in for an epic Subway session later on after a quick thanks to Allah for the bountiful plenty.
However, food is, at most, 40% of the reason for going to a fast food restaurant. In fact, it could be -40% considering the food is usually revolting. What mostly attracts people to fast food restaurants is brand draw, or in other words ‘the dining experience.’
I remember eating at a Pizza Hut in Delhi (perhaps a shameful thing to admit, but there are only so many samosas you can eat.) In Delhi Pizza Hut is an upmarket establishment. Expensively dressed couples hold hands in private booths while suited waiters whisk pizza’s around with a flourish. Compare that to the Pizza Hut of Bristol city center: kids gone manic on unlimited ice-cream factory usage, spotty teenage waiters and pumping Kiss FM. It’s hell on earth and obviously no place to take your potential Indian wife on a date.
As Vietnam have only recently opened their doors to rape and pillage there are, as of yet, no McDonalds. A probable reason is that when McDonalds did their initial customer research in Vietnam, the Big Mac was consistently viewed as a monstrosity. There are, however, many KFC’s as deep-fried chickeny bits are totally culturally acceptable in Vietnamese cuisine. KFC’s in Vietnam are magnificent 5 floored affairs, with floor to ceiling plate-glass and moody low-lighting making it a popular hangout spot for the young, rich and beautiful of Hanoi. The food is exactly as shit and incredibly inexpensive by Vietnamese standards, only adding to its prestige value.
Unfortunately I’ve never been to China, because it is a whole new dimension of weird take away restaurants. I won’t hazard a guess as to what this says about Chinese society.
There are over 3,000 legitimate KFC’s in China, but this seems to have just spurred on the rip-off market. KLG is immensely popular and even has its own dour Colonel Sanders-inspired figurehead.
But best of all are the fast food restaurants that only exist in that country. They are the epicenter’s of cultural weirdness, the flavour of a nation condensed and made digestible. Take Greggs for example, a twisted idea of old English bakery with their staunch old lady staff policy and hair nets, plus the weird retro food, iced fingers buns and oozing yellow custard eclairs, the soggy grey meat of the pork pies and the ominously named ‘meat and potato pasty.’ It’s a horrificly fascinating insight into Englishness, saying so much about our culture, our heritage and our own sad present.