NEW DELHI - It's lunchtime at Ansal Plaza, New Delhi's newest shopping center. Inside the ground-floor branch of McDonald's, Ashish and Jasmeet are busy behind the counter doling out 14-cent ice-cream cones to a group of schoolboys.
The restaurant is half-empty or half-full, depending, of course, on your view of global capitalism.
At first glance the branch resembles any of the McDonald's restaurants across the world. It could be in French Guyana, the most recent addition to McDonald's prolific empire, or Kuwait, or Russia.
It's only when you spot a small sign on the wall that you realize this is India. It reads: "No beef or beef products sold at this restaurant."
Four years after arriving in New Delhi and Bombay, McDonald's is poised to launch a massive expansion program in India, its last great frontier. There are plans to expand the number of restaurants from 24 to 80.
That McDonald's has come here at all seems curious. India, after all, has revered the cow for thousands of years. Cattle are everywhere in India - on traffic islands, grazing in garbage dumps, in temples - everywhere, that is, except on your plate.
To give an idea of how highly the animal is revered, nobody thought it odd when earlier this month 634 cows en route to a slaughterhouse in Muslim Bangladesh, were rescued from a train by animal rights activists. The sight of naked Hindu saints holding pro-cow rallies is not unusual.
McDonald's, by contrast, is the world's largest user of beef. Its epic voyage of expansion has taken it to 119 countries, sweeping aside barriers of ideology, language and taste. But in recent years there has been resistance to this global vision.
As the stand-off between anti-globalists and multinationals continues, India has become the last great battleground. If McDonald's can succeed here - without beef - it can succeed anywhere, so the reasoning goes.
To woo customers, McDonald's has devised a unique marketing strategy. India is the only country in the world where McDonald's does not offer beef. With 140 million Indian Muslims, pork is off the menu, too. This leaves chicken and mutton - the ingredient of McDonald's flagship "Maharaja Mac."
There are other additions to the menu specifically designed to lure India's middle-class - such as the tantalizing "McAloo Tikki" burger. All foods are strictly segregated into vegetarian and non-vegetarian lines. Even the mayonnaise has no egg in it so as not to offend India's vegan sensibilities.
Vikram Bakshi, McDonald's managing director in India, admits that beef was a "complete no-no" from the start. "We have to be sensitive to the culture here. No beef and no pork. We are absolutely politically correct. The point is to be commercially viable. Using beef would take us away from 80 percent of our customers."
McDonald's had been drawn to India because of its huge potential market of a billion people, Bakshi says. He points with pride to the new McDonald's on the road between Delhi and Agra, which allows customers to munch "Maharaja Macs" en route to the Taj Mahal. More branches in north India will follow, he says.
But Indian critics complain that McDonald's food is "bad," "expensive" and - well, "unIndian." They also allege that McDonald's - together with other fast-food outlets that arrived in the mid-1990s, is losing money.
"India has a very ancient food culture. We are not going to change to American patterns of consumption," says Dr. Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. "McDonald's will never become part of mass culture in India because most people can't afford to eat there."
People in India are gradually "waking up" to the threat posed by foreign multinationals, including Monsanto, to traditional methods of farming and ecology, she adds.
In China, McDonald's has had a happier time of it. There are now 260 restaurants, frequented by the better off and the urban rich. Ronald McDonald has been transmogrified in China into "Uncle McDonald" (and "Aunt McDonald"), as befits a corporation which adapts to local needs. In Japan, which was assimilated into the McDonald's empire 30 years ago, there are more than 3,000 branches.
There are few countries in Asia where McDonald's has yet to penetrate. To avoid the chain entirely you'd have to go somewhere really remote - Afghanistan, perhaps, with its landmines, civil war and Islamic fundamentalism. Or perhaps Bhutan, a small and esoteric Himalayan kingdom of few tourists and no hamburgers - and a longstanding tradition of skepticism towards dubious Western ideas.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service. For more Guardian news go to http:www.guardian.co.uk/)