Big Mac value meal only 99 Pesos
Big Mac value meal only 99 Pesos
When I came up with the idea of writing about McDonald’s around the world, the idea was to compare how various restaurants differ based on how their countries differ. During my trip through the Pacific, there wasn’t a lot to set the various restaurants apart.

The Philippines is the fist place where I’ve noticed some substantial variation in the menu compared to what you might see in the US.

For starters, rice is the primary accompaniment. Every meal comes with rice and the rice is packaged in small, consistently shaped conical mounds. You can get fries, but they are secondary to rice. McDonald’s in the Philippines also sells a lot more fried chicken that I’ve seen anywhere else. They call it Chicken McDo. I had breakfast at one McDonald’s in Manila and had corned beef and rice. I have also seen McSpaghetti on the menu.

If you do buy a normal American type meal of a burger, fries and a drink, you’ll immediately notice that the portions are significantly smaller. If you up-size your drink and fries, you still will get a portion as small or smaller than the smallest size you can get in the US. If you are old enough to remember eating fast food in the 70s or 80s, you used to get small, paper packages for fries. That is pretty much the size you get in the Philippines. The “large” drink is the size you’d get in a small plastic beer cup at a party. In addition to cutting back on portions, you will often (but not always) find non-disposable silverware and cups.

The prices here are also the lowest I’ve seen so far. You can get a regular sized burger value (Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, Double Cheeseburger) meal for 99 Pesos, which is about $2.15. Part of that can be explained by the smaller portion sizes, but it is mostly a reflection of lower Filipino prices. I wasn’t able to find out anything regarding where the food is from. I suspect the rice and chicken is from the Philippines but the beef is not.

All of the fast food restaurants in Manila delivered. You’ll see a small fleet of scooters with an insulated box on the back outside each restaurant. I saw several signs which still offer the old Domino’s deal: 30 min or the food is free. They all also seemed to have the good phone numbers. Shakey’s will deliver if you dial 7777777. KFC is 911-11-11 (a number most Americans would be hesitant to dial).

Jolibees is a Filipino owned fast food restaurant with 12 stores in the USA
Jolibee's is a Filipino owned fast food restaurant with 12 stores in the USA
McDonald’s, however, is not the interesting fast food story in the Philippines, however. It is Jollibees.

Jollibees is the largest fast food chain in the Philippines and is Filipino owned. They also have stores in several other countries including twelve in California and Las Vegas. They are probably the only Filipino brand which has any presence outside of the Philippines. Jollibees has over 600 locations across the Philippines, Hong Kong and the US. In the Philippines, they did things I haven’t seen anywhere else. Because public infrastructure is so poor, I saw several scenic overlooks along highways sponsored by Jollibees. Everywhere there was a McDonald’s you’d find a Jollibee, but you would find Jollibee in places you wouldn’t find a McDonald’s.

I made one trip to a Jollibees and ordered a hamburger. It was one of the worst hamburgers I have ever had. Eating a hamburger isn’t usually something you even think about. You don’t often go into a fast food restaurant and think anything, good or bad, about what you’re eating. This, however, was bland and tasteless. I would swear the patty was boiled. I looked around the restaurant and noticed I was the only one eating a hamburger. Everyone else was eating chicken or spaghetti. They probably knew something I didn’t.

I also haven’t been able to write much about local foods on my trip. (See my previous post on the lack of a cuisine in the Pacific) The Philippines is also the first chance I’ve gotten to really experience some local foods and street food. One dish I ate (while writing most of this post) was called “Kare Kare de Pata’t Buntot”. It was a beef dish in a peanut sauce, served on rice with a side sauce…and I’m not sure what the sauce was made out of. It was really more of a paste than a sacue. It was really good and very rich. There were also large pieces of the beef fat in the dish. It was not at all spicy, like all the Filipino food I’ve had so far.

Kare Kare de Pata't Buntot
Kare Kare de Pata't Buntot
In my hotel in Makati, they had a breakfast dish made out of pork. I have no clue what the name of the dish is, but the pork was a bright pink color from the sauce and was sweet. It wasn’t as sweet as sweet and sour pork, but it also wave very good.

In Banaue, I ordered a local Ifague dish of crispy pork knuckle. There really wasn’t much too it. It was a big hunk of pork with bones which was fried served with soy sauce and rice. The best part of it was the friend skin of the pig.

In VIgan I had a dish fried pork belly. It came with a side sauce that was probably be best thing I’ve had on my trip so far. I don’t know the name of it, but it was clearly based on soy sauce, but with a lot more to it. I asked was it was and I was only told it was a “fish sauce”.

The street vendors were also much greater than anything I’ve experienced so far. You could walk out on a major street and see people roasting whole chickens. In Bagiuo there was a block it seemed of nothing but roasted chicken vendors. In Puerto Princessa, I saw someone serving an entire roasted pig, with the pigs head displayed prominently on the cart. I also got to experience the bus vendors, but I will write about that more when I post about my experiences with the Philippines transportation system.

Given the number of Filipinos in the US, I’m surprised you don’t see more Filipino restaurants. I think more Americans would have no problem with Filipino cooking, even if they didn’t like Asian food in general. Nothing I experienced was very spicy and they don’t use chopsticks.

McPacific America

I’m lumping McDonald’s for Hawaii, Guam and Saipan all together. They are pretty much the same and all share the one unique thing I find interesting.

The McDonalds in Waikiki did something I liked an haven’t seen anywhere else. They gave you a free package of diced pineapple with every meal: breakfast or dinner. It was a descent sized portion of pineapple too. A similar sized package cost $3.99 across the street at a convenience store.

Waikiki, Guam and Saipan all served Spam and rice for breakfast. In Guam they also served Chamorro sausage and Portuguese sausage. I tried them both (not at McDonalds) and couldn’t really tell the difference. They are both rather spicy.

The idea of rice (and even fried rice in some places) is something which you wont find in the mainland United States, but is something you get used to pretty quick. In fact, I have really come to like rice and eggs.

What all three places have in common at their McDonald’s is they serve taro pie. (see photo)

I guess taro pies were originally served in Asian McDonald’s then picked up in Hawaii and later in the Marinas. The idea of a taro pie isn’t shocking, but serving it as a dessert sort of is. Taro is a root vegtable. It’s like a potato or perhaps a sweet potato. Usually if a pie has potatoes in it, it would be joined with meat and served as an entree. (One of my favorite dishes are pasties which are Cornish pies that are really big in Northern Michigan)

The McDonald’s taro pie is sweet. It is designed to be served as a replacement for the apple pie. The sweetness comes from the purple, jelly like filling that is inside the pie. It is far sweeter than a sweet potato is sweet, so its not coming from the taro itself.

The other reason I’m surprised they have taro pies has to do with the difficulty of taro cultivation, at least in the Pacific. Taro is probably the biggest staple food in the Pacific. Growing it can be a real pain. Often, if you live on an atoll, you have to dig very deep pits to access fresh water to grow the taro. I don’t know how they do large scale cultivation of taro, but I can only assume they don’t have to dig enormous pits.

I would really like to see a McDonald’s cassava pie….

McDonald’s Noumea

The McDonald’s in Noumea wasn’t anything special. Nothing special on the menu. The only thing of note was how they organized their value meals. You picked a sandwich, you picked a side (salad or fries) and a drink. Each meal was the same price.

They also had the Royal Cheese from Pulp Fiction fame. Not “Royal with Cheese” or “Royal du Fromage” but just “Royal Cheese”.

The McDonald’s in Noumea was very similar to the McDonald’s in Papeete, Tahiti. This really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as they are both French Territories.

Menu wise, most of the McDonald’s in the Pacific was pretty much the same. Just like the small changes in Fiji were really indicative of something bigger, so too is the lack of anything special in the Pacific indicative of something. Talking to people back in the US, one question that always comes up is “what neat stuff have you eaten?” Believe it or not, despite my McDonald’s obsession, I am always on the looking for unique foods. In the Pacific, however, it has been hard to find.

Think how many ethnic restaurants you’ve eaten at or just have seen in your community. In the Twin Cities alone, I have seen restaurants featuring cuisine from: Italy, China (and provinces there in), India, France, Germany, Greece, Lebanon, Iraq, Mexico, Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand, Ethiopia, Morocco, Norway, Sweden, England, Ireland, Russia, Somalian, Mongolia, and, oh, Japan.

I can never recall having seen a Polynesian restaurant anywhere. Even the Polynesian resort at Disney World doesn’t really have any real Polynesian food. They serve drinks in cored out pineapples with little umbrellas, but the food really isn’t Polynesian. There is a good reason for this.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Polynesian diet was very limited. Meat consisted of pork, chicken, fish and shellfish. That sounds like a lot but the pork and chicken was probably only eaten on special occasions. The plants were even more limited: taro, coconut, various fruits (breadfruit, banana, papaya), and maybe some cassava.

Somewhere along the line, Polynesians also lost the ability to make pottery. Cooking was done in banana leaves or large stones, which limited the ability to bake and do other types of cooking. (actually, it is still often done in banana leaves). The absence of pottery also made it hard to boil water in large amounts.

With limited food options and limited cooking options, and few if any spices, it is no surprise that genuine pacific cuisine never developed. (I should say I haven’t been to Papua New Guinea yet. With more land and 40,000 years, they may well have developed more of a cuisine than the other islands did. I don’t know)

Most pacific nations are, by a wide margin, net food importers. Moreover, the foods you see in village markets tend to be things like instant noodles and corned beef. On the basis of the amount of advertising and product I’ve seen in stores, I would call canned corned beef the food of the South Pacific. During my trip to Rennell Island my breakfasts consisted of: white bread (no toast or spreads), saltine crackers, beef flavored instant noodles and homemade donuts that were very very hard to chew. I should note that what I listed was the entire meal, not just the entree.

The only unique dish I’ve seen was a raw fish dish with cucumber/coconut sauce. In Tahiti it was known as Poisson Cru and Rarotonga it was known as Motu Iki. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before in an earlier post, but I should again mention it was delicious. Also, lime juice with papaya is something I’ve seen everywhere. If you haven’t tried it, go buy a papaya and some small limes. Squeeze the juice of the lime onto the papaya before you eat it.

So, the lack of variety on the McDonald’s menus in the pacific is probably just a reflection of the lack of variety in diet in general in the region.

Even when its nothing, it still means something…


I finally got the chance to visit a McDonald’s in Fiji. I had to look closely, but what I noticed was definitely a reflection of what makes up modern Fiji.

The first thing to notice was that there were six different value meals available. Big Mac, double cheeseburger, chicken sandwich, fish sandwich, chicken nuggets, and regular old pieces of chicken. Why is this worth mentioning? Because 2/3 of the menu wasn’t beef and 1/2 of the menu was chicken.

If you looked at the full menu, every item that had beef in it had a small (beef) label next to the item. Why the issue with beef? If you spend any time in Fiji you’d see it right away.

About half of the population in Fiji are Indian, and hence, you got a lot of Hindus.

The population distribution in Fiji isn’t just reflected in the menu at McDonald’s. It has in one way or another, been responsible for much of the political turmoil which Fiji has experienced in the last fifteen years, how its political and economic structure is based, and of course its history.

For starters look at a map of the pacific. Most of the island countries would be impossible to find if their names were printed on the map. Fiji, however, is easy to see. It is by far the largest country in the region, which means it has the potential for the greatest amount of agriculture.

Fiji is also unique in that it was asked to be colonized by the British. (That isn’t an imperial fable to make the British look good either. They asked because they saw it as a way to end conflict on the islands and they knew they’d be colonized by someone, so they picked British.) The British used Fiji to grow sugar cane. They also needed workers for the sugar cane fields.

The largest British colony at that time was India, so India became the source of most of the laborers for the sugar cane fields in India. (The same thing happened in Guyana in South America. Guyana remains the only county in the Western Hemisphere where the largest religion is Hindu.) Indian workers came to Fiji to earn money never left.

Fast forward to independence in the 1960s. Most of the important events which have occured since independence have had something to do with the Indian population in some way or another.

Land ownership in Fiji is heavily tilted to favor native Fijians. There are also set aside positions in the parliament for ethnic groups. Because of the landownership rules, Indians end up owning many of the stores and businesses in Fiji, similar to how Jews and Chinese often wound up business owners in places where they lived.

In 1988, there was a coup in Fiji which was due largely to increasing role of Indians in Fiji in the government. Since then there have been several other coups, the most recent being in December 2006.

The end result of all the instability is that enough Indians have left Fiji to give native Fijians a majority again.

So….there is a heck of a lot behind having chicken on the menu.

McSamoa’s….or, Polynesians Got Back

I’m going to combine the Samoa and American Samoa McDonald’s entry because they aren’t interesting enough to do separately.

As far as I can tell, there is only one restaurant in each county. The Samoa McDonald’s is right in town a block off Beach St. and the American Samoa restaurant is out near the airport. It is quite aways from Pago Pago.

Neither restaurant had anything special on the menu. They have mostly paired down versions of an American menu. The signage at both restaurants looked identical indicating there might be some sort of connection between the two.

The place mat on the tray in the American Samoa restaurant was in English and Spanish. I estimate the population of Spanish speakers in American Samoa to be somewhere close to zero. I’m sure they got leftovers from the mainland.

In Samoa, they had NO DIET COKE!! They only had Fanta, Coke and Sprite. WTF. I think this is a national disgrace and really makes the nation of Samoa look bad. If I were the leader of Samoa, I would start an investigation immediately.

I don’t know how many more McDonald’s I’ll be seeing over the next month. I’m guessing Tonga might have one and I know Fiji has one I didn’t get to, but otherwise, most of the places I’ll be visiting are really small. Probably too small for McDonald’s.

*Edit* Looks like I’m right. Here is a list of countries with McDonald’s. This list is more complete than the McDonald’s website which doesn’t list Samoa.

Considering I’m not going to be seeing any more restaurants in Polynesia, I think this is as good a time as any to address something which is sort of the elephant in the room (no pun intended) if you travel around the region.

What is the elephant? Polynesians are fat.

This isn’t just my opinion. I’m from Wisconsin and we got our share of fat people, but the islands make Wisconsin look like a bulimia convention. Hawaii, Rarotonga, Samoa, and to a limited extent the Maori and Tahitians all had obesity problems. From everything I understand, its just as much of a problem north of here. It will be interesting to see if it is a problem in Tokelau, given how isolated they are.

I don’t think you can just write this problem off to things like fast food. In Rarotonga, there were no fast food restaurants. (well, there was a place called Raro Fried Chicken. The thing I remember about it was that wild chickens would roam around outside the restaurant. I found it hilarious that they milled about while their kin were being served up inside)

I think the reason for polynesian obesity is two fold. One cause is behind obesity in all humans and the other is unique to polynesia.

To understand why polynesians are overweight, you need to realize that for most of human history, the daily concern for most people was getting enough calories for survival. Food was serious stuff. You hunted, you fished, you picked berries, and eventually you farmed. This was all done for the goal of just surviving. In the case of polynesia, think about what the typical polynesian diet consisted of prior to the arrival of Europeans: taro root, cassava root, breadfruit, coconut, fish and they might have brought some chickens. That’s about it. They had to eek out a survival on a small patch of land with little room or good land to grow crops. Getting enough food was a big deal. This was an issue for everyone in the world, but it was a particular problem if you lived on a small island.

Fast forward to 2007 and we have pretty much solved the problem of food. Famines usually only occur in rare cases when you have civil wars or other armed groups preventing the supply of food. Obesity is now a bigger problem than malnutrition in even the poorest countries. We have basically infinite calories at our disposal but have kept our primal desire to clean our plates, have as big of portions as possible, and eat as much as we can. In a very real sense, the “crisis” of obesity is a testament to our ability to conquer the problem of eating enough food…..with an obvious downside of course. That is why there are McDonald’s in Samoa.

The diet of polynesians has also changed dramatically, more than it has in other places. I’ll address this in detail when I pass through the nation of Nauru, which provides one of the best examples on Earth of what happens when you dramatically change the diet of a population.

Everything I’ve described above applies to everyone on Earth. The only difference in polynesia has been the degree.

There is something however unique to polynesia that has compounded the problem: Darwinian Natural Selection.

Go look at a map of the Pacific Ocean and try to get an idea of the size of the area compared to something you are familiar with, like the continental United States. It’s huge. It’s enormous. And it was all settled before the arrival of Europeans. Bands of people in outrigger canoes with no compasses, maps, or even the North Star in the south, managed to migrate thousands of miles from SE Asia all the way to Easter Island and Hawaii. It really is a much more impressive accomplishment I think than anything Europeans managed to pull off in their large sailing ships. Only Captain Bligh came close to that sort of navigation when he was tossed out of the HMS Bounty and made it all the way to Fiji in a rowboat.

Imagine being on one of these boats. They’re not big. Its a big canoe with all the food and water you’ll get. We know about the survivors, but there had to be countless boats that never made it to an island. Maybe they didn’t take enough supplies. Maybe their navigation wasn’t quite good enough and they missed an island by 10 miles. Some people probably died on the boat and had to be thrown over while the rest managed to make it to dry land.

In a long ocean voyage like that, who do you think has a better chance of survival: the fat ones or the skinny ones? The answer of course is, the fat ones.

The process of expansion throughout the Pacific may very well have been a selection tool for people who had a predisposition to store body fat.

I’d like to know if anyone has done a study on this. In particular, you should see a greater propensity to store body fat as you travel east from Asia. Hawaiians should be fattest and Melanesians should be the skinniest. You’d also need to factor in things like standard of living, diets and other stuff which might make the study impossible, but it would be interesting.

I should also add, that at least here in Samoa, guys that aren’t fat are still big. As in linebacker big. There is a reason why Samoa has a uniquely large representation in the world of American Football, wrestling, ruby and weightlifting for its size.

Can I Has Kiwiburger?

You know you want it and here it is. The New Zealand McDonald’s update.

Any discussion of New Zealand McDonald’s has to start with the Kiwiburger.

The slogan for the Kiwiburger is “Kiwiburger: That’s Our Tucker”.

I have no clue what that means. I guess it is some sort of Kiwi slang that is supposed to endear people to “their” native burger.

The Kiwiburger itself is a burger with two special ingredients: egg and beet. Why those two things are special to NZ is beyond me. I’d think a much more local thing would be a burger made out of lamb or mutton, but I guess not.

How did it taste? Surprisingly, not bad. Once you realize that every breakfast sandwich and omelet combines egg and meat, it really isn’t a stretch to put and egg on a burger. Likewise, the beet wasn’t bad. It added a sort of sweetness to the burger. I thought it would be terrible, but it wasn’t at all. I could certainly see adding an egg to burgers in the future.

What else about NZ McDonald’s?

All over NZ, almost every McDonald’s I saw had a McCafe attached. It’s their answer to Starbucks. They sell higher grade coffee and espresso as well as pastries and other baked goods. One McDonald’s in Wanganui had internet terminals too.

Likewise, the menu in most places had more deli type sandwiches and fewer burger options, although the traditional chicken sandwich, fish sandwich and chicken nuggets were everywhere.

All stores also had special deals for after 5pm where you could get value meals for 2-4 people. You could get a family mean for NZ$20 which you got 4 burgers, 4 fries, 4 drinks and 4 sundaes. It was actually a good deal.

The breakfast menu had a BLT bagel, which at ate on two occasions. It is just as it sounds and is really good. I’m very pro-BLT.

I got a brochure at a McDonald’s and read about the ingredients they use. All meat and eggs come from New Zealand. 95% of produce also is local. The only thing that didn’t appear to be grown locally were potatoes.

I noticed the same thing when I was in the UK. The McDonald’s touted all their local food. I thought hard about why they would do that, figuring there has to be a better reason than just good publicity. I think in the end it has to do with cost. Shipping meat and produce from far away just costs more. I’ll be interested to see where nations without a lot of ranching get their meat from.

Mc Donald’s Uber Alles

If you notice the categories I use for posting items, I’ve added one for Mc Donald’s. In each place I visit that has a Mc Donald’s, I’m going to write a separate post giving a brief description of their menu, prices, and other things I find different.

Why would I do this? Why would an American go all the way around the world to eat at Mc Donalds?

Good question.

Because Mc Donald’s is the cultural equivalent of the compulsories in figure skating.

Let me explain….

In figure skating, they used to have the compulsories. That is where the “figure” in figure skating came from. In addition to the performance which they designed, everyone had to do a series of “figures” in the ice with their skate. Everyone had to do the exact same thing. It was an equal basis on which to evaluate skaters which didn’t have any artistic component. It was just ability.

I wanted something I could find in most every country that would be slightly different, yet similar enough to make comparisons, and see if those difference can be used to illuminate the differences between places. A compulsory for countries if you will. Something to use as an easy to understand proxy for something very complicated: culture. The obvious choices were international brands: Coke, Pepsi, Mc Donald’s, Mercedes, Nestle, etc. Not all of them are American brands. In fact, being American was really irrelevant to what I wanted to do.

We like to think of Mc Donalds’ as an American company. In a way it is, but in reality its a global company that happens to be headquartered in the US. That is not a small distinction. It was hard to find any differences in Coke products other than packaging. The formula might be a bit different in places, but that’s hard to really show. Most consumer goods companies (Nike, Addias, etc) didn’t have much difference in product between countries other than their advertisements. Cell phone manufacturers pretty much sell the same phones and its sort of hard to compare unless you buy a phone everywhere.

Mc Donald’s was the easy choice. Its ubiquitous and every locality does it a bit different. They have some things which are the same everywhere (chicken nuggets, big mac) and other things which are unique (Spam and rice in Hawaii).

I have no particular love for Mc Donald’s. I’m not going to eat at every Mc Donald’s, or even most of them. I’m also not anti-Mc Donalds however, nor am I an anti-globalization zealot.

So here is the first Mc Donald’s review: Papeete, Tahiti.

A large Big Mac combo was 890 XPF or about US$10. I went all Pulp Fiction and ordered a “Royale Cheese”, which seemed like a smaller version of a quarter pounder. The fries and drink seems about the same size as one in the US. The fries did have “Voted best fries in New Zealand” on the package. The only thing on the menu which I saw which was unique was chicken wings. Plain old chicken wings.