The McDonald’s Big Mac. The quintessential symbol of American capitalism, transcending the realm of food and consumer goods. Its story begins in 1967 when the food giant gave burger-birth to the “Aristocrat” in one of its Pittsburg kitchens. The failure of this noble effort brought about its renaming to the “Blue Ribbon Burger”; a second failure which prompted a flash of marketing genius and completed the Mcmorphosis into the food phenomenon we know today. The “Big Mac” debuted at 45 cents in Pennsylvania to roaring popularity, and joined the menu of every US location by the next year.
Nearly 50 years later the Big Mac is being distributed in 118 countries by over 33,000 McDonald’s outlets. The burger’s ubiquity, indeed its burgerbiquity, has come to represent far more than the power and implications of globalization and corporate imperialism. The distribution of the fast food giant’s signature product has actually become so universal that it can, as a non-rigorous exercise, command its own economic index. In fact, it has since 1986.
The Big Mac Index was hatched by The Economist twenty years ago as a lighthearted but surprisingly cogent exercise in measuring exchange rates and purchasing-power parity. From an example on their site: The average US Big Mac cost $4.62 in January; in China it cost $2.74 after market exchange; hence, the yuan was undervalued by 41% in January—drive-thru economics for those of us who just don’t have the time.
This form of fast food analysis has actually found publication in economics textbooks and been vouched for as a global standard. But because the Big Mac Index replaces highly dynamic cultural interpretations, and in many cases overlooks varying ingredients of the burger itself with its hard black-and-white understanding of price value (a common problem in economics), “burgernomics” fails to gain universal acceptance as a legitimate economic application. But you can always partake, for the index's simple if reductive utility or just for the love of fast food.
This article looks at the 10 countries in the world where a pocket of loose change will buy you the most in McDonald’s in 2014. To make the order a little more sensitive, we’ve ranked how many Big Mac sandwiches you could get with $100 USD, rounded to the nearest Mac. While the shortfallings of the Big Mac index aforementioned still stand, this is a uniquely useful perspective on the countries in which your U.S. dollar will stretch the most.
10 Sri Lanka: 37 Big Macs
McDonald’s consistency is nothing short of legendary in the fast food industry, but its flexibility is what made global success possible. McDonald’s menus around the world employ the company’s same powerful branding colours and images, “tastefully” embroidered around cultural needs. If you’re up before 10:30 in Sri Lanka (or is it 11?) you can track down one of McDonald’s five locations for a McOmelette breakfast burger at 100 rupees — less than 1 US dollar. If you’ve got a $100 bill, an insatiable appetite for Big Macs and zero regard for your diet, then at $2.68/burger Sri Lanka is the place for you.
9 Russia: 38 Big Macs
Capitalism: Less than three months after the Berlin Wall came down, McDonald’s set up its first Russian location in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. As of 2013 Russia has at least 418 locations selling Big Macs at an average 93 rubles, or $2.62 USD a pop, but—when in Russia!—tourists will probably want to try the McShrimps instead.
8 Taiwan: 38 Big Macs
A McDonald’s in Taiwan recently caused a stir for making its female cashiers don schoolgirl uniforms and maid outfits while addressing all customers as “master”. Not exactly what we had in mind for cultural sensitivity. On the other hand, the Rock Black and White Burgers (above) look and sound intriguing: The former uses truffle sauce, the latter mushroom sauce. For the conservative fast-food types, the classic Taiwanese Big Macs only run you about $2.62.
7 Egypt: 41 Big Macs
With 1,258 locations as of 2012, Egyptians love their McDonald’s. In this seventh biggest McDonald’s country in the world a Big Mac runs about 17 Egyptian pounds, or $2.43 USD, but we feel a McArabia would be a better way to “soak in that Egyptian culture”: Kofta patties (a form of meatloaf) topped with lettuce, onions, tomatoes and tahini sauce in a folded Arabic-style pita.
6 Hong Kong: 43 Big Macs
In Hong Kong you can order a Mcwedding. Yes, as of 2011 three of Hong Kong’s 237 locations offered affordable wedding party options with ceremonies and facilities supporting up to 100 people. We’re assuming they come with a Big Mac buffet (otherwise what’s the point really?) which shouldn't run too steep by wedding standards at $2.32 USD a sandwich. Unfortunately, they probably won’t come around with trays of Hong Kong’s unique Chicken McMuffin breakfast sandwiches.
5 Indonesia: 43 Big Macs
All 110 Indonesian McDonald’s are certified halal and serve “local” items including crispy and spicy fried chicken, the McRice, steamed rice (available in Supersize), McSoup and the McSatay (a hamburger with satay sauce and spicy ground peanut). Even though it’s only $2.30, with options like these do you really want another Big Mac?
4 Ukraine: 44 Big Macs
Ukraine had 76 McDonald’s in December, but thanks to Putin’s invasion and those pesky Washington sanctions it was forced to shut down its only 3 Crimean locations. To the pro-Russians in Crimea: Do you really want to cut ties to $2.27 Big Macs? Some sources say the third busiest McDonald’s in the world sits conveniently by Vokzalna, Kiev’s main train station, where it served 2.3 million Ukrainians last year.
3 Malaysia: 44 Big Macs
Malaysia was the first Muslim-majority country to host a McDonald’s in 1982. Malaysia today boasts 314 locations with their own culturally-catered menu including the McD Chicken Porridge with onion, ginger, shallots and chili peppers, and the Grilled Chicken Foldover (similar to the McArabia). During Chinese New Year, McDonald’s even capitalizes on superstition with limited time “Prosperity Burgers”. We wonder what percentage of Malaysian McDonald’s eaters go for the culturally sensitive stuff, versus the old fashioned Big Mac at around 7.22 Malaysian Ringgits, or $2.23 USD.
2 South Africa: 46 Big Macs
153 McDonald’s have opened in South Africa since the first location less than twenty years ago. For a sense of how successful and quickly McDonald’s spreads, that’s a rate of almost 8 franchises every year in a country where nearly 40% of the population lives rurally. Of all countries listed here, the South African menu looks the most Americanized except for the menu's Corn Cup (which is a cup of corn). But at only $2.16 a Big Mac, the prices certainly aren't comparable to the American restaurants.
1 India: 64 Maharaja Macs
India’s “(Big) Maharaja Macs” come at a value menu price by American standards—92 rupees, or $1.54 USD. Even though no Indian locations serve beef or pork products due to Hindu and Muslim customs, the chicken Maharaja Mac equivalent proves just as popular here where the rate of McDonald’s-ization tops South Africa: 250 locations since 1996. If the chicken Mac just doesn’t feel right, you can get worldly with a McSpicy Paneer Wrap (fresh South Asian cheese), a McVeggie, a Pizza McPuff (a vegetarian pizza-filled puff) or, of course, the one and only McCurry.