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McDonald's In India: Would You Like Paneer On That?

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When you walk into a McDonald's in India, it doesn't feel that much different from one in the U.S. That is, until you try to order.

When McDonald's first came to India 15 years ago, it ditched the Big Macs and Quarter Pounders to try to fit in in a country where cows are sacred and most people frown on eating beef. The chain tried re-creating its American classics with lamb, but it was a flop.

Instead, McDonald's introduced homegrown alternatives like the vegetarian McAloo Tikki potato burger to go along with its non-beef standards like chicken nuggets and fish sandwiches. Now, following the success of its vegetarian meals, which make up half of its current menu, McDonald's is going one step further.

This month, the chain announced a plan to open its first 100 percent vegetarian McDonald's in India.

"India has been a huge experiment for McDonald's. The issue in India is, a vegetarian is a strict vegetarian. There have been instances that I've seen where a person who's vegetarian would not even sit with a person who's eating non-vegetarian food. It is that level of seriousness," says Rajesh Kumar Maini, head of communications for McDonald's in India.

The new vegetarian McDonald's will target the strictest of vegetarians in the country: religious pilgrims.

Millions of Indians travel to visit holy sites around the country each year. And while on pilgrimage, whether or not they eat meat at other times, pilgrims adhere to a strict vegetarian diet.

Now the country's most devout will see restaurants known around the world for their burgers near the holiest shrines in India.

Outside a Hindu temple in New Delhi, a crowd gathers to chant evening prayers.

Rahul Bhasin has been on a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi, a Hindu cave shrine that attracts millions of pilgrims and is one of the sites for a new vegetarian McDonald's.

"It will definitely sell. Had the first McDonald's come up in Vaishno Devi, it would have been not the right thing. But now there are a lot of people going to McDonald's who are vegetarians," Bhasin says.

Varun Arora, a lifelong vegetarian, also eats at McDonald's from time to time.

"I went to Vaishno Devi around three years back. I ate pizza, the vegetarian pizza," she says.

Arora says she'd gladly trade that pizza for a veggie burger — just as long as it doesn't have onion or garlic in it, because those are also forbidden near the shrine.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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