McDonald’s France promo pairs “baguette” burgers with famous cheeses

french cheeseIn a move that’s either sheer genius or…a sign of the Apocalypse, McDonald’s France is giving their cheeseburgers a serious makeover. From February 15th through March 27th, customers will be able to get their burgers on a baguette, with a choice of four different French cheeses–three of which are prestigious Protected Designation of Origin (PDO; formerly known in France as Appellation d’origine contrôlée, or AOC) products. These cheeses are under strict production guidelines and can only be made within a specific area in their region of origin. Ooh la la!

According to culture: the word on cheese (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor), the cheese selection consists of Cantal, a buttery alpine style; Fourme d’Ambert, a creamy, spicy blue; Saint-Nectaire, an earthy semi-soft number, and “generic” chèvre, aka fresh goat cheese.

The cheesemonger/writer in me is thrilled to see something other than processed orange crap on a hamburger, and in France, I think this concept will fly. I don’t think America is ready for le gourmet burger with cheese yet, but it will be a great day when fast food actually consists of real food.

5 French Phrases to Know When Cheese Tasting

Should you eat at American chain restaurants when you travel?

denny's japan american chains travelFor people traveling the world in search of culture, adventure and, in a philosophical sense, themselves, it’s probably discouraging to see so many signs of American consumerism all across the globe. Virtually anywhere you go, you’re bound to see American restaurant chains serving variations on the “classics.” Is that a bad thing? Should we be avoiding these establishments in favor of eating only in local restaurants? I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought lately and don’t profess to have the answers to all of these questions. Like most travel conundrums, this one comes down to personal preference. So, how do I feel about American chains overseas? My travel experiences will make that pretty clear.Truth be told, I don’t eat much fast food when I’m home (road trips being the exception). It’s typically unhealthy, unsatisfying and unappealing. However, I’ve found that the quality overseas is significantly better than at the American locations. I ate at a Burger King in Israel and my burger was fresher, tastier and resembled the photograph on the menu more than anything I’d ever had at one of the chain’s domestic locations.

I also ate at a Denny’s in Auckland, NZ. It was 2am, I was intoxicated and needed to get my fix of greasy breakfast foods. Some things are universal, so whether I was at home in New York City, back in college or on the other side of the world in New Zealand, Denny’s seemed like a good idea after a few drinks. Was it my favorite meal of that trip? Of course not. Did it serve its purpose? My lack of a hangover the next morning would signify that it did.

pizza hut indonesia american chains travelOn a recent trip to Indonesia, my girlfriend and I stopped into a Pizza Hut to pick up dinner for our friends. Not only did the menu contain items that no American Pizza Hut carried, the location itself was as lovely as many high-end restaurants in New York. Much like when I was in India, it was obvious that Pizza Hut was catering to the burgeoning middle class. A trip to Pizza Hut was part of a special evening. Why’d we choose an American chain when the streets were lined with warungs serving every type of Indonesian food you could imagine? The answer to that question explains every trip to an American chain I’ve ever made overseas.

We were curious. We wanted to see the Indonesian interpretation of pizza (there were chicken sticks in the crust!). I didn’t have the Maharajah Burger at the McDonald’s I saw in India, but I wish I did. Not because I expected it to be better than any saag paneer I might enjoy there, but because I wanted to see how McDonald’s handled not being able to serve beef in the predominantly Hindu nation.

This is not to say that every bite of American food I’ve had while traveling internationally was an act of investigation. Sometimes I just want a taste of home. The longer the trip, the more likely I am to eventually crave a burger, a slice of pizza or a bagel. If I can find those in a chain, so be it. Cravings are fun to satisfy.

Whether you like them or not, American chain restaurants are becoming ingrained in cultures around the world. While many people are seeking out “authentic” experiences, they are ignoring the fact that modernization and globalization are redefining the very sense of authenticity (not that any one person can ever explain what is or isn’t truly authentic in a place – it’s a word that should be removed from every travel writers lexicon). I love eating locally and experiencing the cuisines of the world. But I also love seeing how American culture is reinterpreted to fit into the social norms of other places.

I’ll continue to visit American chains overseas (though I passed on going to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Bali) purely out of curiosity and a thirst (pun alert) for familiar tastes. I understand why others eschew these businesses. I get that people want to fully immerse themselves in new places. For me, however, those chains are part of my immersion.

What about you? Do you eat in American chains overseas? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

5 reasons to be a tourist

After three months living in Istanbul, I’ve gained a stable of a few dozen Turkish words to string into awkward sentences; learned some local intel on what soccer teams to root for, where to get the best mantı, and the best Turkish insults (maganda is the local equivalent of guido); and have come to avoid Sultanahmet with the same disdain I used to reserve for Times Square when I lived in New York. Then a funny thing happened while wandering the Asian side or the city with some visiting friends: I stopped worrying and learned to love being a tourist. Letting your guard down and realizing you will ultimately always be a tourist no matter how “local” and “authentic” you can live, no matter how long you explore a place, is remarkably liberating, even fun. The old traveler vs. tourist debate is one of the most pernicious and tiresome in the travel world, and while there’s a lot of truth and value in being an independent traveler, tourists are a good thing, and being a tourist can be a lot less annoying and worthwhile than the travel snobs would have you believe.

  1. Get unabashedly lost – When I make a wrong turn in Istanbul, I’m so self-conscious about being “caught” as someone who doesn’t belong here, I find myself hiding in alleys furtively studying maps, seeking out street signs from the corners of my eyes, and acting as if that wrong turn was entirely planned for and intentional. Yet on a recent trip to Prague, I was on the hunt for a cafe recommended to me by David Farley, and after giving up on the hopes of finding a wifi connection, I started going into bars and shops and asking directions. Eventually I found the (excellent) Meduza Cafe, saw some interesting dive bars/casinos along the way, and got over my shame of toting a map around.
  2. Do something you could do at home – Sure, you came to Paris to see the Louvre and absorb the cafe atmosphere, not to sit in your hotel room and watch pay-per-view movies, but seeing the everyday abroad can be a great window into another culture. I’ve wandered malls in Buenos Aires, gone to the movies in Turkey, and had coffee at a Chilean McDonald’s (I’m also a big fan of zoos). Each place I have been surrounded by locals and experienced a surreal clash of the foreign familiar.
  3. Eat foreign foreign food – Sushi is great in Tokyo, but so is Korean, Chinese, Indian, and Italian; pretty much everything other than Mexican, which for some reason is a total fail in Japan. Just because something isn’t a “native” dish doesn’t mean it isn’t widely enjoyed by locals or “authentic” to the region. If you are insistent on only eating the national foods, you could miss out on great pizza in Colombia or cheap French food in Lebanon.
  4. Speak English – Learning please and thank you in a foreign language will get you a long way and it’s always a good idea to know a few key words, but English has become the lingua franca of the world and using it abroad is often easier and can lead to good conversations. My fractured Turkish is often met with English responses and I’ve met shopkeepers, bartenders, and taxi drivers eager to practice their English, discuss politics (apparently many Turks would like Bill Clinton to be president of their country, who knew?), or ask if the cafe they frequented while studying abroad in Raleigh is still around.
  5. Stop, gawk, and take pictures of stupid things – Another thing New York instills in you is to not look up, watch street performers, or act as if even the most ludicrous spectacle is anything other than commonplace. Remember when virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played in the D.C. Metro? I’d bet that more tourists than locals stopped to listen. Or what if I’d let my embarrassment prevent Mike Barish from taking a picture of this sign in my neighborhood subway station? Could have been tragic. Soak up as much of the sublime and the ridiculous as you can.

Maybe one day we can eschew the traveler and tourist labels, shed our fanny packs and backpacks, realize we’re all a little obnoxious, and embrace the wonder and fun of exploring a new place in whatever way we want.

Why does China love KFC more than McDonald’s?

KFC is one of the most popular fast food chains in China, with more than 2,100 locations in 450 cities. Perhaps surprisingly, McDonald’s is not nearly as successful, with only about half the number of restaurants. This is the reverse of the situation in the United States, where McDonald’s is often considered to be number one while KFC trails behind.

So why do the Chinese prefer KFC to McDonald’s? The blog The China Expat has a few possible answers. One of them is that KFC caters better to Chinese tastes than McDonald’s does. For example, KFC’s menu includes Traditional Peking Chicken Rolls, Preserved Sichuan Pickle and Shredded Pork Soup, Happy French Fry Shakes (with beef, orange and Uygur barbecue spices) and for breakfast a Chinese-style porridge called congee. McDonald’s caters its menu to international tastes, but not to the same extent in China.

In addition, a slick marketing campaign from KFC has some Chinese convinced that KFC is actually healthy. “Their message is that KFC is the ‘new fast food,'” says the China Expat. (Does this mean KFC’s appalling new “Double Down” hasn’t arrived in China yet?)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly in these lean economic times, KFC has better coupons than McDonald’s. The coupons are apparently so good that Chinese KFC’s are occasionally mobbed by coupon-holders.

Go here for the full China Expat post. Any other ideas why KFC beats McDonald’s in China?

What German McDonald’s thinks of New York City

Apparently Germans really like to visit New York City. How else to explain a new Big Apple-inspired menu of cupcakes, now appearing at McDonald’s restaurants across Germany? According to food website Eater, the new German cupcake campaign features sweet desserts named after New York’s “tourist hot-spots,” including Chelsea, Central Park, SoHo and the East Village. The campaign appears to be a tribute to the New York’s never-ending cupcake craze, inspired by famous bakeries like the perpetually crowded Magnolia Bakery.

Each cupcake also comes complete with a trendy description and suitable New York-style “hipster” mascot. Did you know for instance that the East Village is home to all of the city’s most famous artists? Maybe 30 years ago. Even if it’s slightly off the mark, it’s always interesting to catch a glimpse of another culture’s take on your own. In a way, famous cities like New York have become global brands, exporting their cupcakes, t-shirts and grocery stores around the world.

Anybody seen these on the menu on a recent trip to Germany? Share your thoughts in the comments.