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The Rise and Fall of India's Original Burger King

When international fast-food empire Burger King entered the Indian market last year, an extant mom-and-pop restaurant also known as Burger King was forced to change its name. Now, it's simply known as Burger.
Photos by the author.

I'm in in Pune, India, sitting at a place formerly known as Burger King—but it's not the one you're probably thinking of. The sign outside depicts a single burger, with duct-tape concealing the word "king" beneath it. When the better-known, international fast-food empire Burger King entered the Indian market last year, it took the mom-and-pop restaurant to court, forcing it to remove "King" from its name. Now, it's simply known as Burger.


But that's not the only problem for agitated owner Shapoor Irani. Most worryingly, his main ingredient is now contraband.

In April, the recently elected government in the western Indian state of Maharashtra made it a criminal offence to be in possession of beef. If found guilty, offenders can receive sentences of up to five years in jail and a fine of 10,000 Indian rupees (about US $160).The law has been widely criticized by secular and liberal factions as a ploy to attack India's religious minorities. Countless Indians expressed dismay at the ban when it was announced, tweeting their protests under the hashtag #beefban.

READ: India Just Made Eating Burgers Illegal

Indians have a complicated relationship with cows and bulls. They're a deity to some, a useful source of labor to others, and a covert indulgence to the rest. Hindus, who make up the majority of the Indian population, traditionally do not consume beef. When historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha tried to suggest in 2002 that this hasn't always been the case, he received death threats and saw his book burned.

'These jerks are asking me for vegetarian hot dogs. A damn burger is a beef burger. Who are you kidding?'

While in many parts of the world a burger is understood as a beef patty between buns, a quick glance at a McDonald's menu in India will reveal no red meat burgers at all. Instead, there are countless treatments of chicken, cottage cheese, and potatoes, along with a single fish and vegetable alternative. The American Burger King offers a mutton (goat) or chicken version of its classic Whopper.


This idea of adapting Western foods for Indian consumers doesn't seem to sit well with Irani. "These jerks are asking me for vegetarian hot dogs," he grumbles. "A damn burger is a beef burger. Who are you kidding? You don't have an aloo tikki [potato patty] burger!"

Irani's voice is proud as he talks about the methods used in his kitchen, where bread is natural enough to go bad when it rains and his meat patties are never frozen. The beef burgers that used to be the star of the menu at this small operation are something the "real" Burger King does not offer in India. Irani would have enjoyed having that one thing over them.

Burger's burger has been replaced with a 'carabeef' option—water buffalo meat that is stickier and has an inferior taste to beef.

In 1989, he opened the Indian Burger King to bring the American tradition of burgers and milkshakes to the sleepy town of Pune. The restaurant, fondly remembered as a cosmopolitan center, served only chicken and beef burgers the first two years it opened. It attracted local Christians, Zoroastrians, Muslims, foreign students, expats, and Hindus. Upon its entry into the market, McDonald's made the burger a household name in India and drove the masses straight to Irani.

"'Burger' was and still is an icon in Pune. It is one of the most famous burgers in town, and beating it for the value it offers at that price point is very difficult," says Amita Kelkar, a food blogger.


Originally, Irani's beef burger may have symbolized something foreign, Western, anti-Hindu, and upper-class—but its popularity only grew. "There were a lot of Hindus who used to not be bothered [by beef]," says Irani. He spoke about a Hindu friend of his who would scoff at the idea of a chicken burger. He remembered another time an old woman with green eyes (a popular way of identifying India's upper-caste vegetarian Hindus) stepped up to the counter and asked for one of his "steek" (steak) burgers that would sell out every day. Likewise, Kelkar informed me that she knew of quite a few Hindu friends who would enjoy Irani's beef burgers without compunction.


Today, however, Burger's burger has been replaced with a "carabeef" option—water buffalo meat that is stickier and has an inferior taste to beef. Irani says representatives from right-wing political parties still harass him and force him to prove that he isn't using smuggled beef, which he does with documentation that shows he receives the meat from a licensed butcher.

Because of the switch to carabeef, Irani estimates that his business has dropped by 75 percent since the beef ban.

For Gaurav Keskar, 23, who went to college in Pune, Burger was the first place he tried beef. He has fond memories of hanging out with friends there, staring at the Beatles posters on the wall. He hasn't been back since the ban, but if he returns he said he'll be switching to chicken. "I had a water buffalo steak once," he tells me. "Not interested."