I read a food article from BBC News this week that inspired me to chat.
It was about a controversy in Pakistan over a popular street food versus the local McDonald’s version, and it made me think of the age-old argument of tradition versus evolution.
As we look forward into a new world full of changed things, are we more or less likely to want to eat new food?
Everyone has their non-negotiables in life. These concepts speak to our ethics, our roots, and our character.
As far as food is concerned, I have found that usually the topic of non-negotiables is more of a moving target, influenced by friends and new experiences… and sometimes, one too many drinks. (Who has eaten that hot pepper on a dare?)
Even whether you like smooth or chunky peanut butter is sometimes an impulsive decision.
Globalization changed the way we look at food. Many foods previously considered exotic are now regular items at the supermarket.
Pineapples, dragon fruit, and daikon radish are easy to find and often not even expensive. Sauces and spices from other cultures sit alongside ketchup and mayo in people’s fridges.
We can have it all now, if that is what we want.
There is still cachet in local specialties and artisan products. But it is not uncommon to see the big chains take on favourite items. I remember the day my poor hubby, a classically trained chef, discovered McDonald’s was serving crème brulée.
“That’s it,” he moaned woefully, “I am not cooking that for clients any more.”
Not to pick on McDonald’s, but the same sort of situation now exists in Pakistan. There they have a street food made popular in the ’50s, called a bun-kebab. It is a fried patty made with ground beef and lentils or potatoes, and sometimes a fried egg on top, served in a fluffy bun with crispy vegetables and chutney.
As is customary with street food, the bun kebab tends to be unique at each vendor, but always simple, cheap and full of fresh flavours. The perfect lunch for workers on the go, or at the school cafeteria.
McDonald’s seemed to see this item as a twist on their burger, so why not add it to the menu?
They did manage to prepare a recipe of the deluxe “anday-waala burger” with the fried egg that offered the basic components, but it lacked the experience from a roadside stand.
It was also three times the price.
One could argue this is just a case of a company trying to offer everything, which we all know is impossible. You can’t please all the people all the time. But I think it goes deeper than that.
If you translate “anday-waala” it means “egg with…” You see, the bun-kebab is all about the extras that go into the bun.
The main patty is not the star, as is the case with a western-style burger. Even the language proves that difference, with the clients trusting the vendors to use their own flair in creating something special.
I will use my chef hubby again to give you another example. He will not cook Christmas dinner for a client, unless they agree to let him do something different with the menu.
“Why would I attempt to cook your Granny’s lumpy mashed potatoes that you love, and your Mom’s special gravy, when I know I could never duplicate it?” he says.
The experience is as important as the food.
I am not making a case for lumpy, mashed potatoes, or mass-produced crème brulée. Food and cultures do evolve, often much to the delight of diners, as I have written about in previous columns.
I think the issue here is trust. There is an integrity to food that is created out of passion, and I for one believe that should be respected.
If you want to add ketchup on a bun-kebab when you visit the street vendors in Pakistan, that is your choice. Maybe someone from Pakistan might add some chutney to a McDonald's burger.
But can we stand up and support those who work to keep the integrity of their culture in simple things like a takeaway lunch item?
The world does not need more homogenization. If the cream never gets to float to the top, how will we ever be inspired?
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.