Big Mac in the Indian Ocean

By Sean Carey

McDonald’s has demonstrated in other parts of the world that when secular and sacred collide it is adept at finding a solution. Will it do so this time?

In 2001, UK Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, came in for much praise (and some criticism) when he suggested that the rise of chicken tikka massala to become Britain’s favourite meal had become emblematic of the way the nation absorbs migrants and their cultural traditions. “Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy,” he famously said before adding that an inclusive multiculturalism was a positive force for British society and the economy.

Cook was certainly right about the economic significance of the “Indian” restaurant sector — worth around £4.3 billion per annum, 85 per cent of which is controlled by British Bangladeshis — but was wrong to put so much emphasis upon a particular product. In fact, the real significance of chicken tikka massala in the UK is not the dish itself — after all, it and other Anglo-Indian favourites like king prawn korma and lamb pasanda are readily available in neat packages in supermarkets and local convenience stores — but the fact that it continues to generate positive social and economic transactions across ethnic boundaries.

Go to Brick Lane in east London on any night of the week, but especially on Fridays and Saturdays when the restaurants are at their busiest, and you will see it with your own eyes. Relatively young, mainly white, well-educated metropolitan types of various nationalities descend on the 50 or so curry houses – the largest cluster of restaurants of its kind anywhere in the world – and are served chicken tikka massala and myriad other dishes by British Bangladeshi Muslim staff before exiting to dance the night away in the many bars and clubs in Greater Shoreditch.

The Brick Lane restaurant sector is a very good example of effective multiculturalism at work in a global city. The transactions between members of different ethnic groups are relatively simple but the consequences are profound. Moreover, compromises are to be found on both sides of the ethnic boundary. For religious reasons, a significant number of the Brick Lane restaurants do not serve alcohol, and customers know that they cannot expect a pork curry (they can visit any Nepalese restaurant in the capital if they really want one). Customers also know that the meat served will be halal, using a method of animal slaughter that may not be to their liking.

Nevertheless, both parties end up valuing each other both economically and socially. A lot of the credit for this must go to Tower Hamlets Council, which in an inspired policy shift, authorized the creation of a “Restaurant Zone” in Osborn Street and the southern section of Brick Lane in 1999.

In Mauritius, the impact of contemporary globalisation has also dramatically changed the way people eat. The days of only consuming food either in the home or at the workplace have long since gone. All the hotels on the island provide food for locals as well as tourists. And it is a mark of the success of the island’s tourist sector that some of the most prestigious hotels like Le Saint Geran and Le Touessrok have Michelin-standard restaurants supervised by highly acclaimed London and Paris-based chefs like Alain Ducasse, Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar.

For those in Mauritius with neither interest nor the disposable income to enjoy fine dining there are alternatives, of course. As well as traditional street food, fast food outlets providing fried chicken, burgers and pizza have mushroomed across the island over the last two decades. Global brands including KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Nando’s are now well established, and others have been set up by local investors keen to get a slice of the action using local brand names.

There were not many complaints until recently when the intention to open a second branch of McDonald’s in the Jumbo Phoenix shopping mall near the ISKCON temple came to public attention. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that eating beef is taboo according to all varieties of mainstream Hinduism, the Hare Krishnas are outraged and have already organised two demonstrations outside the proposed 150-seater restaurant. ISKCON now has the backing of most of the Hindu organisations in Mauritius including Arya Saba, Kranti, Mauritius Marathi Mandali Federation, Ram Sena, the Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation, and Hindu House.

In India McDonald’s, which has 192 outlets, goes out of its way to accommodate local religious norms and values. A visit to an Indian McDonald’s is highly instructive as roughly half of the items on its menu are vegetarian options, including the Mc Veggie, Paneer Salsa Wrap, Salad Sandwich and the McAloo Tiiki. McDonald’s does sell a variety of chicken products but no beef or pork items are included on the menu in order not to offend its Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Muslim customers.

Nor is the ability of McDonald’s to adapt to local customs confined to the subcontinent. In countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey with predominantly Muslim populations all meat products are halal, while in Israel all meat served is kosher. Interestingly, 36 of the 160 McDonald’s restaurants in Israel are also under strict kosher supervision. This means that the kosher branches close on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, and do not sell cheeseburgers because of the Jewish dietary prohibition concerning the mixing of meat and dairy.

Which brings us neatly back to Mauritius. The bureaucrats at the Municipality of Vacoas-Phoenix and the Minister of Local Government, Herve Aimee, appear to be hiding behind the fact that the new branch of McDonald’s received the relevant planning consent in April 2010 and so nothing more can be done. But this begs the question why no local or central government official anticipated the likely controversy that a branch of the world’s largest fast-food company serving beef patties near a Hindu place of worship would generate.

And what about the position of McDonald’s? It would be very odd given the company’s proven track record in accommodating local customs and sensibilities that it has deliberately set out to provoke a fight with beef-avoiding Hare Krishnas and other religiously-minded Hindus in Mauritius. Put simply, conflict does not serve McDonald’s commercial interests.

One thing is for sure: McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois will now be very well aware that a local franchise, Ascencia Ltd, a subsidiary of Rogers and Company Ltd, has been caught up in a storm in an island in the Indian Ocean. But like the Bangladeshi-owned curry houses of Brick Lane, McDonald’s has demonstrated in other parts of the world that when secular and sacred collide it is adept at finding a solution. Will it do so this time?

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at CRONEM, Roehampton University

* Published in print edition on 25 February 2011

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