Some people complain about the ubiquity of fast food brands across the globe, seeing them as the ultimate symbol of knife-in-the-map American imperialism. Some people say they dilute local culture, threaten culinary heritage and encourage widespread unhealthiness.
I find them comforting. The presence of fast food joints globally smashes down barriers. In pretty much every city and town in the world there is always someone, just like you, who is rampantly hungover and demanding the utter mediocrity of a cheap burger to quell the feeling. It might be the only thing we ever really have in common.
I’ve lived in Shanghai since May 2013, and as a fast food connoisseur I’ve kept an eye on how my favourite eateries have been integrated here. Generally, what’s available matches the pickings I’m used to. But as brands attempt to snag more Chinese tongues their menus have been tweaked, and some of the results are shocking. I visited outlets of five of the most prominent Western fast food places here to eat the most disgusting stuff I could find.
KFC’s menu in Shanghai is much the same as it is elsewhere: people here are just as hypnotised by the good Colonel's recipe. There are, however, a few curveballs.
Take, for example, the "Italian Vegetable Chicken Rice". Looks pretty nice, right?
Certainly doesn't look like this.
This chicken tastes how it looks: utterly repellent, like the sauce might have gone off an hour or so ago. What’s more intriguing than the taste is why it’s marketed as "Italian" when presumably the whole point of featuring rice is to appeal to more traditional Chinese tastes and we've already established that the chicken is from Kentucky. So what part of it is Italian? The cucumber?
Whatever the reason behind its label, it’s the worst "Italian" food I’ve ever tasted, as well as the worst Chinese.
But wait, this shrimp burger looks alright...
Though it doesn’t have the little shellfish snuggled up inside, like the menu promises...
Oh, there they are. Looking fucking horrible.
For whatever reason, the whole shrimps are housed inside the breadcrumb crust, and as such look like parasites that have invaded a chicken burger host and eaten it from the inside out. Which is a shame, as it tastes fairly decent.
Since Pizza Express staged its coup of the UK high street, with its light jazz, bottles of Peroni and pizzas that don’t make you feel like you’ve swallowed a lead plate, this place doesn’t quite seem the institution it used to be. However, in Shanghai, beyond Papa John’s, low-priced pizza chain joints are few and far between. So maybe this could be a chance for Pizza Hut to re-establish itself?
I’d been hoping to sink my fork into this monstrosity. The un-mixable mix of hot dog, mayo, shrimp tempura, squid and fish cake was so garish that it inspired Perez Hilton to momentarily stop drawing cocks on celebrities’ foreheads in MS Paint and blog about it.
Sadly, that offering hasn’t survived into the new year, and beyond one with shelled shrimps on it the pizzas aren’t hugely different to the UK ones. However, what I did come across was arguably more sinister than even that atrocity.
On the menu, the "Texas steak" looks inoffensively bland. Plastic Argos toy food that could be tolerated, even perhaps enjoyed.
The reality was starker. A lot, lot starker. As you can see, it looked like some smashed up bits of brain drenched in molasses and flung into a weird cardboard boat.
Where to begin? Firstly, it isn’t steak. More Kwik-Save frozen burger. Secondly, steaks – or frozen burgers – do not go with spaghetti. Ever. No one has ever willingly ordered "burger spaghetti" from a menu. How does it taste? Again, this tastes how it looks. Let’s leave it at that.
The side dish I ordered didn’t do much to lift the experience. Here are the garlic snails on the menu:
And here they are in real life:
Again, it would be difficult to imagine anyone walking into a Pizza Hut in, say, Staines and ordering "snail pizza". Is it churlish to expect snails in a Shanghai branch of Pizza Hut to be of the same level as a Paris eaterie? Yes, but it should be edible, and not have some kind of charred discharge surrounding it, like the chef has made a dirty protest at having to ruin his reputation serving it. I didn’t see anyone else ordering this.
After Pizza Hut, anything more appealing than a fly-fishing hook being scraped across my tongue would be an improvement.
Sadly, there are no ballistic Chinese-style curveballs on the tried and tested Domino's menu: just solid, mildly overpriced pizzas made while you wait. Although in Shanghai they have mini restaurants you can sit in while you scrub snail taste out of your mouth with pepperoni slices. Recommended.
There were similarly few revelations at Burger King. Although for Chinese New Year they’ve launched the "Dragon burger"’, and posted a shot of it in their window that makes for a mildly amusing picture if someone’s sat at the right table.
The reality is less impressive. I think the marketing deparment let China's comparatively lax trading standards get to their heads. It's just four OK burgers in a bun with cheese and a spicy sauce that’s not as nice as barbeque sauce. It's not snail pizza but it's not exactly what was advertised. Next.
Happily, the most rewarding experience in my search for screwy fast food twists came at the most ubiquitous venue of them all: Maccie D’s.
Like KFC, the spine of its menu is built from the classics. Cheeseburgers. Fries. McNuggets – albeit served with a boring sweet ‘n’ sour sauce rather than the barbeque version it was born to swim in. But come 5PM, when the special dinner options kick in, something happens. Let me introduce you to the "Beef Rice Bowl".
Here it comes...
The stench that zoomed up my nostrils when this was released from its cardboard box took my breath away. While the Pizza Hut "steak" suffered by exposing the shoddiness of the meat with a poverty of condiments, here the opposite problem caused a much more overtly foul experience.
It’s drowned in some kind of concentrated, sickly sweet rib-style sauce. A sauce so glistening you can see your own face in it, aghast expression and all. I managed one bite before aborting.
McDonald's launched rice dishes last summer as part of their China push, which has seen them open hundreds of restaurants in the country in the past three years. That the amount of these dishes available has dwindled in the short time since seems to indicate that maybe Chinese people aren’t looking for Chinese-style meals when they come to American-style food venues.
Or maybe it’s got something to do with that sauce.
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1
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