Our love story with burgers: When, how and why?

The lowdown on why Pakistanis can’t get enough of this American food staple.

Nida Ameen January 31, 2014
The past couple of years have seen a spate of burger joints making their way into the Pakistani food market. PHOTO: FILE


The mere thought of a juicy double patty beef burger, smothered in yellow cheddar cheese, melting from the sides, topped with a dash of relish, drizzle of mayonnaise and crunchy bits of turkey bacon (some may prefer jalapenos, eggs or nothing at all) served hot with a side of crispy fries and a super-sized jar of cola, brings a smile to our face; tantalising our taste buds with the anticipation of the first bite. 

The past couple of years have seen a spate of burger joints making their way into the Pakistani food market — from global fast food chains like Fatburger and Johnny Rockets to local spinoffs like Burger Lab in Karachi and Burger Hub of Lahore. While most of these are recent inductions to the fast food scene, it was Mr Burger in Karachi that pioneered the trend of burgers in the less globalised Pakistan of the early ’90s. However, even though this American food staple entered the ‘daal roti’ society around two and a half decades ago, it was the launch of fast food giant McDonalds in 1998 that drove consumer demand to the extent that it has continued to grow at a faster rate by every passing day.

The dilemma, however, is why have we become so passionate about what seems to be a piece of meat in between two buns and a bunch of veggies, at first glance? Nutritionist Dr Tayyaba Khan believes it is primarily because of our fascination with Western culture. “The people of the sub-continent have always been inspired by the West and its culture. Having a burger in the early ’90s became synonymous with being cool in Pakistan, thanks to our innate desire of aping the American culture,” she says.

However, foodies beg to differ. “With globalisation at its peak it doesn’t make sense to think of something as just being American. Burgers, much like any other foreign aspect, have become embedded within our own culture,” asserts Imran, a loyal burger fan. Globalisation can understandably negate that argument, but then what exactly is the reason behind our obsession with this meal?

The answer lies within the question itself — it is handy and like most of our quick preferences, it fits well within our busy lives where time is a luxury. “It is fast food for a fast-paced life,” says food fanatic Tehmina. “Most people don’t enjoy the time to sit down and dedicate an hour or half to a meal. They want something fast, filling yet delicious. In that context, burgers are the first things that come to mind.”

With burger franchises sprouting from every nook and corner, it appears their salvagers understood these needs well. “A burger joint is a part of the quick serve food concept that attracts a young and fast pace urban lifestyle, where people prefer food which can satisfy their taste buds in a quick yet stylish ambiance,” says Fatburger’s CEO Amer Kamal. “A burger franchise adds that additional entertainment value to the overall value proposition for consumers.”

However, is it intelligent to just credit the success of this dish, in a relatively non-coinciding culture, to its wholesomeness or do marketing techniques have a role to play? “The marketing strategy is most important as it communicates the value being delivered to the customer. It communicates the value and strengthens consumer experience,” asserts Tughral Hilaly, assistant marketing manager of Johnny Rockets.

If we take that into consideration then why do most burger joints fade away into the food landscape as quickly as they make an entrance; is it a consumer’s never-ending anticipation of the next big burger or taste makes the bigger difference here? “My love for it is driven only by taste. The burger joint I prefer is one of the least advertised joint in town. As a connoisseur of good burgers, taste is the greater parameter on which judgments are passed,” says Faizan, another local foodie.

The fact that it is cheap, easy to eat and simple yet versatile suffices for its growing popularity but, with fame often comes attached with a price — health. As our world has gotten more and more aware of its nutritional drawbacks, burgers have been subjected to immense brow-beating and most of it stands true, too. According to Dr Khan, just the bun of a burger consists of approximately 300-375 calories. Yet, despite all the negative publicity, every new burger place is seen flushed with crowds of enthusiastic customers. “For me the love of food over powers all logic and I always give in to my craving,” says Uzma while enjoying her meal at McDonalds.

From what can be gauged, our love story with the burger defies any rationale and controversy, like all great loves, but while most of them are defined by our emotions, this is driven by our taste buds as well as our changing lifestyle needs. Will it ever reach a breaking point when a new, enticing craze will lure you to ditch this ghost of the past and present? Burger chains oppose this debate and feel there is only more room to grow and, considering how we have become so grateful for its presence, there can only be an evolution, not depreciation. The taste of a great burger will always linger in our memory much like a good joke that makes us laugh every time we remember it.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2014.

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vaqas | 7 years ago | Reply @A. Khan: The hamburger was definitly here in karachi in the late seventies. Could have been here even before that. And mr. Burgers was the first bonafide fast food chain to open in karachi. And i have been most definitly having those since the mid eighties. I was not even in karachi early to mid nineties. So your second assumption about the author is correct, where the world began when she could walk out the house on her own feet. On a side note, mr. Burgers still tastes exactly the same as it did some 30 years ago. Although they have sadly done away with their slush machines. So any nostalgic type burger fans are advised to head to yout nearest mr. Burger and experience the distinct flavour of a mr. Big with cheese. You will love them.
A. Khan | 7 years ago | Reply From the article, it would appear that burgers came about in the 90's in Karachi. And here was I thinking that Karachi was way ahead of Islamabad in terms of food trends amongst other things. Or does the author think that this trend started only from the time she can remember ? Islamabad had the likes of Mr.Chips and Blackbeards in the 80's and they made pretty good burgers. Or maybe I was much younger then. Burgers after all are a cheap and quick snack in the West. It is not very healthy though. Once in a while is ok but have it every other day and you are asking for trouble.
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