Morocco loving the McArabia

RABAT, Morocco — Walk into a McDonald's in Morocco and you'll find a sandwich you can’t get anywhere else in the world: a cumin-spiced flatbread creation called the McArabia Tagine.

The McArabia was launched across the Middle East in 2003, but this year the 23 McDonald's franchises in Morocco further localized the recipe by tweaking the seasoning and sauce.

“Honestly it tastes Moroccan,” said Noor El Ghoumari, 34, a man who had just paid 53 dirhams, or about $6.60, for a meal with one of the ground beef sandwiches in Rabat on a recent afternoon. “This is a local McDonald’s and obviously they have to adapt.”

McDonald’s is far from the only fast-food giant to embrace an expanding trend of localization, nor is the Arab world alone in inspiring new dishes. Domino’s pizzas come topped with squid in Taiwan, black beans in Guatemala and feta cheese in Greece. In China, Kentucky Fried Chicken sells rice congee, while Col. Sanders in India woos vegetarians with offerings like the Chana Snacker, a chickpea burger topped with Thousand Island sauce. “They’ve all adopted this strategy,” said Tom Miner, a principal at Technomic, a Chicago-based international food industry consulting firm. “It’s accelerating because the number of brands going international is accelerating. Now instead of two or three brands going global in their menus, now you’ve got two or three dozen.” Miner said his company has helped dozens of global chains tailor their recipes to local tastes. He said the necessary flavor adjustments tend to follow a pattern mapped out by a pair of Cornell University biologists in 1998.

After surveying more than 4,500 meat recipes from 36 countries, the scientists found that cultures in hotter climates overwhelmingly favored recipes with higher concentrations of anti-microbial spices like garlic, cumin and pepper. The biologists posited that developing a taste for spice gave people in hot climates an evolutionary boost by making them less likely to eat contaminated food.

“The culinary preferences are similar in concentric bands around and parallel to the equator,” Miner explained. “When you’re on the equator you need a different kind of spice to make those proteins last longer in heat,” a fact that “hardwired the genetic food preferences.”

Profiting from those preferences is now easier than ever, said Joseph Lampel, a professor of corporate strategy at Cass Business School in London. Fast food kitchens and the methods used to supply them have advanced to the point that a totally standardized menu is no longer a necessity, he said.

McDonald’s can now afford to sell Shrimp Burgers in Hong King, lemon pepper Shaka Shaka Chicken patties in Japan and chili-spiced SingaPorridge breakfast dishes in Singapore — and in some ways it can’t afford not to.

“Everybody is racing not only to be cheaper but to have more variety,” Lampel said. “They’re beginning to see it as an advantage and not a compromise.”

The McArabia was launched across the Middle East just after the United States’ invasion of Iraq — a troubled time when both American policy and consumer brands sought footholds in a newly hostile region.

For the Morrocan version, McDonald's scrapped the McArabia's garlic-based tahini sauce and seasoned the meat with spices Moroccans use for stews made in traditional cone-lidded pots called tagines. Elongated Quarter Pounder patties are first spiked with cumin, coriander and other flavors. Then they’re fried, slathered with a piquant tomato sauce, sprinkled with bell peppers and wrapped in soft, pita-style bread. McDonald’s officials here said the effort has been a success so far. Sixty percent of the country’s regular McDonald’s customers have tried the sandwich this year, according to a regional marketing and communication director, Abdellah Bniaiche, who said harder sales figures weren’t available.

At franchises in Rabat, the sandwich drew decidedly mixed reviews.

“It doesn’t work,” said Asma Smeli, 32, as she left a McDonald's in Agdal, one of the capital’s upscale outer neigborhoods. “It’s not really Moroccan. It tastes more Egyptian to me.”

Inside a McDonald’s in downtown Rabat, Laila Alami, 30, said she’s ordered the sandwich frequently since it came out.

“It’s not really a tagine, but it’s good,” Alami said. “It’d be better if they spiced it a little bit more."