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A “Bargar” to remember

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on March 10, 2018

Shut-door story: The Capital always had a Big Fat Generational Relationship with the burger chain. Photo: Sandeep Saxena   -  The Hindu

Delhi’s affair with McDonald’s burgers comes to a rude end

From where I come, in my growing years, a burger was food viewed with suspicion, as it was foreign.

As kids, if we wanted to act modern and reach out to cosmopolitan tastes beyond bread, a cutlet was the snack we ordered while eating out. Never mind that it was more of a beet-filled stone in a pond of ketchup on a veined ceramic plate.

A local gentleman had introduced breads and confectioneries in little cafés across Chennai by the end of the last century. Fresh out of college, we’d land up at one of his outlets and fall upon buns with a filling of boiled potatoes, beans and carrots. The crafty guy knew about parental approval of veggies in a city which ranked restaurant food as good only if “it does nothing to the stomach”. The response to the question: ‘What’s the point of food that did “nothing to the stomach”, would invite scatological details about the infamous Delhi belly.

Hence burgers were what single, male cousins ate in distant lands. “The real deal is from here,” insisted an uncle and a cousin who were studying in Germany. The cousins from America said the version there was the “better deal”, and one of them, a student, said something about flipping burgers after college for pocket money.

Whatever! Back to those warm buns and milky tea, ya. So cool in hot Chennai.

Now Delhi, on the other hand, has a proper relationship with burgers. Big Fat Generational Relationship, in the manner of Arundhati Roy’s capital letters for emphasis, that included the entire family — little Pinky and Sunny and Lajo Aunty and Bittoo Uncle and their parents. Since its first restaurant came up in Basant Lok in 1996, burgers became synonymous with McDonald’s in Dilli, and its gleaming golden arches seen as a happy welcoming sign. For a rapidly aspirational and post-liberalisation population it had come to mean a “foreign, read American meal” that came close to desi comfort tastes.

For many Indians, visiting the First White World was their introduction to McDonald’s. Students on stipends and visitors who wanted to get by on their touristy journeys with little money spent on eating, found McDonald’s a haven. The beef was delicious and did not cost your life or burn your bank over a burger. Also, in the last two decades, the First World began to give vegetarianism a nod in the McDonald’s menu, making it easier for desi vegetarians, too, to halt and bite into a burger and wash the chow down with a fizzy drink. And burgers offered the mind-comfort to picky desi eaters that they were eating something cheap and what looked like an American flip on a vada pav.

It was quintessentially a Delhi quality that McDee caught on well in the city. In Delhi, its outlets were cheap and cheerful places and, given their quick popularity, the menu offered more desi holy cow food comforts — chicken burgers, aloo tikki burgers or Maharaja burgers. No beef burgers, please, we are India’s capital, no less.

Thus it came to pass, with Delhi’s prominent cafés like Nirula’s shutting shop, that McDonald’s took over that space for a quick bite of something foreign that was not costly. Ask any Mummy from Delhi and she’d nod that her party-savers for hordes of brats for a birthday bash were burgers and potato fries before the pizzas came in. For teens on a strict wallet of pocket money (cash rationing happens, I’m informed, in certain circles that want to be marked as socially aware parents), McDee is a comfortable hangout after a dash to the cinemas and a romp in the air-conditioned malls. Even millennials-on-the-go found it easy on their wallets. It’s also uniquely Delhi that you could spot its silver citizens out alone, away from the sneering company of their “arrivistic” offspring and grandkids, chomping down their burgers at a table. “ Beta, ek chicken bargar for Dadaji and mere liye aloo, aaj Tuesday hain.”

All of that came to a rude halt following last week’s announcement that McDonald’s was shutting down 43 of its 55 outlets in the city. Delhi families will sorely miss their outing of eating grub that filled their bellies and gave them a sense of “eating out something non-desi”.

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

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Published on July 07, 2017
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