A hunched and solicitous Ronald McDonald greets customers out front of the Chiang Mai Nimmanhaemin Road McDonald’s, frozen in a wai offering, the traditional Thai bow of respect. Behind him, the promotional sign’s promise of mango iced tea and pineapple pie looked just curious and tempting enough, so in I bounded, putting to end twenty years of McDonald’s-free eating. With some of the world’s best street food on offer steps away, walking up to that McDonald’s counter felt almost like an act of lifestyle rebellion.
What self-respecting tourist in Thailand would go into an unhip American fast food chain for any reason other than a stealth trip to the bathroom? Surely only the lazy, the un-adventurous, ‘that type’ of American would sit down to a meal offering so pitifully few social media bragging rights in this land of delectable curries, spicy noodles, and tom yum. It’s not even fun to be ironic about. But since that stop at McDonald’s, I’ve learned that there are many reasons to explore American fast food in Thailand, where fast food can be shockingly delicious.
First, it’s important to flip a few presumptions. A McDonald’s burger can be five times the price of a plate of street-stall pad Thai. Fast it is, but cheap it is not. Accordingly, fast food restaurants in Thailand are nicer, the staff friendlier. There’s always free drinking water.
And just like Stateside, where fast food restaurants tend to Americanize foreign dishes, a Dairy Queen Blizzard is foreign food here, and subject to heavy editing. This means your burger might have a Thai accent, your condiments will be dialed up a notch spice-wise, and ingredients that make Thai fast food surprising to the average tourist in elephant pants will normalize it to locals. Standard Thai ingredients like chilies, makrut lime leaf, scallion, curry, mango, and rice all get plenty of shine in American/Thai fast food.
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The latest American/Thai amalgam I came across at the McDonald's in Chiang Mai is the Namtok, or “Waterfall” Burger, which gets its name from a popular Thai pork salad that’s flavored with ingredients like mint, lime juice, shallot, dried chili, and fish sauce, with a healthy dose of pig blood mixed in. The burger version (a sizable pork patty, with no pig blood evident) comes with a spicy chili sauce that substitutes for ketchup, and will bring sweat to the brow, as does the sweet/hot dipping sauce for fries. Like at American McDonald’s, there is a rotating menu of specialties, so depending on when you’re around, you might also find curry crabstick pie, or even fiery Penang curry on offer. It all makes a Shamrock Shake seem a bit tame by comparison.
Then there’s Dairy Queen, which Thais have embraced like a chilly in-law from far north. Here, it’s all about the ice-cream creations, and there is evil genius at work in the Thai Dairy Queen’s Durian Oreo Blizzard. Durian is the unwieldy yellow fruit that is so odorous it is banned from the Thai railway system and at many hotels, where the scent lingers long after the guests have moved on. The smell has been compared to sewage, and it can even make experienced gourmands turn away. But coupled with toothsome Oreos and whipped into its frozen Blizzard form, the shunned durian becomes something entirely different, like an ugly kid’s transformation before prom. The cold tamps down the smell, leaving only a delicate, bright flavor similar to papaya. But if that faint durian odor is still too much to bear, you can always go for a subtler Green Tea Oreo Blizzard.
Fried chicken is huge in Thailand, and most city blocks will have a chicken stand. Kentucky Fried Chicken is very popular here, and known to work well outside the safety zone of the sanctioned eleven herbs and spices. The nuggets on Thai KFC’s ‘loaded’ Spicy Chicken Rice Bowl come on a bed of jasmine rice, and are seasoned with cilantro, roasted rice powder, scallion, and chili. The roast chicken version adds white jelly mushroom to the mix. Follow it with a tiny, decadently rich custard tart, and you get to taste what the Colonel might have whipped up on furlough in the Golden Triangle.
If it’s approaching midnight, and you are shopping for a bag of peanuts flavored with dried anchovies, then I have a pretty good idea where you are. Thai 7-Elevens are a culinary walking tour of exotic drunk food. In my neighborhood shop (and every neighborhood in cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok will have a 7-Eleven, the most prevalent US franchise in the country. According the Bangkok Post, there are more than 10,000 in Thailand) there is half an aisle dedicated just to seaweed-based snacks. Plundering the aquarium further, you will also find cuttlefish crackers next to Cheetos; and Lay’s chips come in squid, shrimp, and nori flavors. The shredded pork in the house shredded-pork sandwich, keeping with a local love of sweet and spice, is almost sugary as candy.
A stroll through a Thai 7-Eleven can be a Wonka-esque landscape of trippy colors and novel flavors. Squid flavored corn puffs? OK! Not to be outdone by empty calories of American white bread, they sell individually wrapped chocolate bread sandwiches next to pink strawberry bread sandwiches, right by an ethereal lavender-colored taro bread, looking like finger food for Internet sensation Poppy.
But the best 7-Eleven has to offer in the ready-made food section. In addition to chicken and fish burgers and—naturally—squid nuggets, you can find a 7-Eleven piece de resistance: the spicy pork burger that employs two tightly packed discs of gelatinous sticky rice as buns. They microwave it for you behind the counter, making it the perfect handheld snack for the scooter ride home. As nobody has had the foresight yet to create a mango Slurpee, a vibrant orange-colored bottle of lassi will have to do.
The concoctions you find in the American chains in Thailand can be a unique and interesting marriage of two cultures, and while they may not be ‘authentic’ in the strictest, food-snobbiest form of the word, they lay claim to plenty of authenticity. American food here has gone native, and benefited by being indigenized. But perhaps the greatest pleasure a fast food meal offers is finding a juicy justification for behaving like a contrarian in what’s by all rights a food paradise. That being said, I don’t think any of this will mark a return to my eating regularly at McDonald’s. And there is something a bit sinister about that bowing Ronald McDonald. But isn’t it much nicer when cultures blend rather than clash?