NEW DELHI — Move over tandoori chicken and mutton curry, the Maharaja Mac has finally arrived.
The double-decker, 100-percent beefless burger in its perfectly toasted sesame-seed bun is now the pride of McDonald's first venture in India, a sign of the country's recent interest in welcoming foreign firms.
Situated in a trendy New Delhi suburb, the restaurant, which opened on Sunday, has been doing a roaring trade serving thousands of lamb and vegetable burgers a day to a hungry clientele queuing up for hours to taste the once-forbidden fruits of the world's largest fast-food chain.
After years of careful planning, McDonald's kept its launch deliberately low key to avoid protests from animal-rights activists and militant farmers' groups who oppose the entry of multinational fast-food chains. The burger giant has been warned that it will face the same music as India's first Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in the Indian city of Bangalore, which has been attacked several times since it opened.
But so far the barricades outside the restaurant have been used for crowd control.
"These people are coming for the unique McDonald's service," says the company's managing director in India, Vikram Bakshi, as he flicks a speck of dirt from the stairs of the two-storied, jam-packed restaurant. "You will find the same quick and friendly service here as in any McDonald's restaurant in the world."
To appease Indian religious sensibilities, the restaurant is the first in the 19,400-strong McDonald's chain not to offer beef and pork derivatives on its menu, which also features a large vegetarian spread. The majority of Indians are Hindus who consider cows to be sacred. Many are also vegetarian. Muslims, who make up around 12 percent of the population don't eat pork.
For 39 rupees (a little over $1 or around twice the average daily wage of an Indian worker) a McBurger Meal combo consists of lamb-burgers instead of hamburgers along with the usual soda and fries. Slightly more expensive at 57 rupees is the Vegetable McNuggets Meal with McMasala or McImli (tamarind) sauces.
But the beefless burgers are unlikely to silence opponents of the chain such as Maneka Gandhi, an outspoken animal-rights activist.
"Whether they serve lamb or vegetable burgers is irrelevant. McDonald's is the largest killer of cows in the world," says Ms. Gandhi, who led the protest against KFC.
Nonsense, retorts Mr. Bakshi, "McDonald's has been very sensitive to our culture. We serve only what is the preferred meal in India."
Opponents of multinational fast- food chains claim their products cause health problems, conveniently forgetting that many traditional Indian dishes have high fat content.
Militant farmer groups claim the processed food industry is harmful to the environment because of the depletion of food grain required to feed the huge quantities of animals used in the industry.
While security guards keep a watchful eye on protesters posing as diners, the restaurant's lawyers are also being kept busy. A little-known south Indian sanitary-ware merchant has threatened to take McDonald's to court, claiming the food giant's golden arches logo is an imitation of his own.
Despite the abundance of traditional fast foods, the Western dining experience is finally taking hold in India. Pizza Hut is here and Planet Hollywood plans to open in Bombay next year. McDonald's, too, will also open a restaurant in Bombay before the end of the month.
For the moment, McDonald's is the place to be seen for New Delhi's youths. "It doesn't matter to me that McDonald's serves beef in its restaurants overseas," says Jasmine Pawa, as she waits for a vegetable burger. "I'm here for the experience."