ISLAMABAD: “It is surprising that there are so many multinational companies running fast food restaurants in Pakistan,” says a foreigner in one of the KFC restaurants in Islamabad. “Yes, I like the food in KFC, being an American, but I would have lived very well on Pakistani flavoured chicken, too, and maybe it would have been healthier,” and then she pauses, because she is not quite sure that the oily Pakistani food is healthy if consumed every day.

Most of the foreign chains have their headquarters in America, such as KFC, with two outlets in Islamabad and a total of 69 in Pakistan, and Pizza Hut, with three outlets in Islamabad and 57 in the country. And then there is a new American chain in the country, named Hardees, with an outlet in Rana Market in the F7 sector.

In F-6 Super Market, there is a South African chain named Nandos, and that, too, specialises in chicken dishes, with special trademark flavours of sauces, certainly with secret recipes.

“No, Pakistan doesn’t need foreigners to prepare chicken for them. If there is something Pakistanis are good at, then it must be making delicious chicken dishes,” a Danish customer jokes.

“But international food chains are everywhere in our globalised world. They may not contribute to the local economy; rather they would take out profit from the country. Perhaps they add some value, though, in better hygiene and maybe also in ambiance.”

“Young people in particular like to go to the modern-looking fast-food restaurants. It costs more than in local restaurants, and the food may not be better. But it is still worth it, well as long as the family can afford it.”

“That means that the youth and older people, too, go to eat in places where they feel they belong, where they want to be seen, and where the friends of their class and background go. Economists call this ‘conspicuous consumption’, meaning that it is not really the product that is important, but it is all that comes with it.”

“If somebody buys a very expensive car, with horse power meant for high-speed driving German autobahns, he cannot make much use of it in Pakistan. But, it is still great to be seen in such a car. And if people can afford it, and they pay taxes to the government, I have nothing against it either,” the thoughtful Dane says, adding that even the Scandinavians, who used to be quite puritan, now can be seen in Lexus and Cadillac cars. We seem to show off more than before, and we don’t care if some think it is wrong, because so many others are impressed.”

“I don’t like foreign food,” says Asif Farooq, who comes from Multan and is a driver for a European family in Islamabad.

“When I take them to a posh restaurant in the city, I am given money to take food, too, and I always go to a local restaurant, where they have daal, roti and chicken prepared the way I like it,” he says.

“Or I go to Savour Foods in Blue Area, or one of their other outlets in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where they have the chicken rice pulao dish with Pakistani style salad of raw tomatoes, onions and cucumber. It is a very popular place for young people, Asif adds.

“I believe that Pakistani restaurants can do much better than they are doing,” says Wazir Ali, who came back from the UK to establish MJ’s Bakers in Islamabad, which is a local company, but has an international flavour to it.

“I think about my own business and customers,” Wazir says. “I agree with those who say that international chains are not really needed. But they, too, should be allowed to operate in the country, and it is the quality and image of the local outlets that will determine our success. We can learn from foreigners, too. But we must also do things our own way,” Wazir says, mentioning that MJ’s is a supplier of bakery products to several international restaurants.

Hamid Faraz in Gourmet Bakers, with several shops in Islamabad, is proud of cooperating with Habanero Express for the new local beef and chicken hamburgers.

“We have just started with it and we believe there is a great future for local brands, which are copies or hybrids of the foreign versions. We use mostly local ingredients but import some flavouring from abroad so the taste becomes right. And we are much cheaper than the foreign chains. Why do we like to eat foreign food when the local is as good or better,” asks Hamid.

“I agree entirely with those who say we should develop our own food industry,” says Dr Munawar Sher Khan at St Joseph’s Hospice in Rawalpindi.

“It is a status symbol to go to foreign fast food chains, but we don’t realise that they are actually meant for a quick and cheap meal for busy people; and they are meant to be cheaper than ‘proper’ restaurants, but that’s not the case in Pakistan. Some of them may buy cheaper raw materials and cut corners as for hygiene,” the doctor says.

“As soon as we develop good local alternatives, I believe we can attract customers and be even more successful than the foreign chains. We can be cheaper and better.”

“That goes for other sectors, too, such as education institutions and hospitals. We can make the local ‘brands’ as good as the foreign ones, and then the upper middle class don’t have to send their children abroad for their education, or go for medical treatment abroad. We can make many hospitals as good as Aga Khan and Kulsoom, and many schools and colleges equal to Beacon House and Atchison. Then we can be prouder and more indigenous Pakistanis,” says Dr Munawar Sher Khan.