McDonald’s new China tactic is catering to the nation’s voracious love of pork

It only tastes like chicken.
It only tastes like chicken.
Image: Quartz/Heather Timmons
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McDonald’s has been struggling a bit in China, where fast-food diners have been concerned about food safety in the wake of an avian flu outbreak and tempted by local competitors more attuned with local tastes. The company’s response is to cater to the voracious appetite for pork in China—where the Mandarin character for “meat” (肉) means pork unless otherwise specified, and the government maintains a strategic pork reserve—with a new pig-based take on the hallowed McNugget.

The new menu item, roughly translated as Spicy Pork McBites, cost just 9.5 yuan ($1.56) for 18. In the interest of serious journalism, Quartz bought a box from a Shanghai outpost and scarfed a few. The nuggets are a bit smaller and squarer than their chicken-based cousins brethren and come without  dipping sauce. The outside is a spicy, peppery coating that tastes a bit like the fried chicken batter from Yum Brands’ rival chain KFC. Inside, though, is classic McDonald’s nugget material: pale to medium brown and homogeneously textured, a bit granular and spongy at the same time. If you were drunk, and could stop yourself from thinking about how the pork product interior was actually made, they’d probably be awesome.

Spicy Pork McBites are hardly McDonald’s first international brainwave. The majority of the company’s sales come from outside its home base in the US—22% from Asia Pacific and 40% from Europe this year—and a key to the company’s overseas growth over the years has been its ability to adapt to local tastes. McDonald’s doesn’t mean burgers in many overseas markets, it means cheap food, fast service, clean restrooms and free heat or air conditioning, as the climate warrants.

In India, for example, in a nod to Hindu tradition, there’s no beef on the menu and the company opened vegetarian food-only restaurants last year. There’s also a plethora of Indian-friendly items like the “Veggie Surprise,” a non-meat “burger” whose surprise appears to be that there are peas in it, and the Maharaja Mac, a spicy-as-hell chicken sandwich on a burger bun. In Russia, McDonalds cornered 70% of the fast-food market with items like the “Cabbage Pie” and in Mexico, it has the “Angus con Tabasco” burger.

Meanwhile, here in Shanghai, Quartz has got 14 Spicy Pork McBites left, if anyone wants them.