McDonald’s celebrity collaboration meals show no sign of slowing down. First there was Travis Scott’s collab, which consisted of a Sprite and a Quarter Pounder meal with cheese, bacon, and lettuce (and a side of barbecue sauce with the fries). This meal killed it at the drive-thru. Then there was J. Balvin’s meal, which was a Big Mac sans pickles, fries with ketchup, and an Oreo McFlurry, which, let’s be real, sounds completely phoned in (Big Mac, no pickles?!). And today, McDonald’s collaboration with hugely popular Korean boy band BTS dropped nationwide.
As all of you know, I’m a proud Korean-American. I was born here to immigrant parents and grew up in two worlds. There’s the one my family provided me through my heritage, via the Korean language (well, sort of—some of my Korean sucks ass), tradition, and culture. Then there’s the other world I grew up in here, steeped in American pop culture and, eventually, a college degree in English.
Though I feel a little too old to be hopping on pop music crazes, I am extraordinarily proud of what South Korea has done with its pop culture game. Like, holy shit. Having gone from a tiny, once “third-world” country to an explosive powerhouse in the entertainment industry, Korea’s place in the pop culture landscape, and its representation at McDonald’s, of all places, is blowing my goddamn mind right now.
When I was growing up, my experiences were much like many you’ve probably read about. Kids would say, “Dennis, your food smells.” I’d be ashamed to have anyone over for dinner because some of my friends thought Korean food was weird. Yes, I got asked if we ate dog, and for fuck’s sake, the answer is no. Can you imagine if, say, your family’s beloved meatloaf was considered repulsive to your friends, especially as a sensitive kid? Nowadays, being Korean is cool as shit, and the whole world knows it. I wish I could have heard that while I was growing up.
I hopped on the BTS bandwagon a little late in the game, about a year or two ago. Even though boy band music isn’t my thing, I have to say I’m proud of my boys. I’m well aware of how complicated it all is, too, with all the plastic surgery, the clear manufactured-ness of it all, the ultra-glossy tunes like “Dynamite,” sung entirely in English. The fact that K-Pop itself is considered an export is not lost on me.
At least the music’s catchy. And this is not to mention any of the Korean contributions to television (notably K-Dramas) and movies like the Best Picture winner Parasite.
“All this intro just to talk about a McDonald’s meal, huh, Dennis?” you’re likely asking. Why not? I’m proud as shit to be Korean. Besides, AAPI Heritage Month is over in five days. Might as well shout about it now.
The BTS Meal, on paper, isn’t anything particularly unique. It’s a 10-piece Chicken McNugget meal with fries and a Coke. The BTS part comes through in the new dipping sauces: Sweet Chili and Cajun.
The sauces come in pastel packaging, dressed sort of like the entire band. And there’s no secret message in the Korean written on the packaging either; it just says “Cajun” and “Sweet Chili,” in a phonetic Korean-to-English pronunciation. There is no need to turn these words into a stylized tattoo on your back unless you’re really into dipping sauces. But it’s an interesting feeling, realizing that I don’t have to go to an entirely different grocery store just to see Korean written on packaging. It’s right here, at McDonald’s, printed on every order. That’s awesome.
The sauces, according to McDonald’s, are South Korea-inspired. What that means, I’m not entirely sure. Because this is the Cajun sauce, mayo and mustard-based, and last time I checked Korea wasn’t entirely known for its Cajun cuisine.
That being said, the Cajun sauce is suitable for people who tend to stay away from sweeter dipping sauces. It’s sharp in that nasally way you sometimes experience with mustard, and it’s tart, but without any strong seasoning in any particular direction. I’m going to say out of the two, this is the lesser pick. It has a vinegary tinge, kind of like buffalo sauce.
Now, the Sweet Chili sauce is where things get interesting. It actually tastes like gochujang, the fermented red pepper paste so famously associated with Korean food. I’m used to it, having grown up with it, but there’s something about its flavors coming from a fast food dipping cup that makes it hit differently.
I looked at the ingredients and didn’t see gochujang or gochugaru (the red pepper flakes used to make gochujang), but the team at McDonald’s somehow managed to nail down the flavor in a fast-food-friendly way. This is a sauce for those who like pairing their McNuggets with something more sugary, like the Sweet and Sour dipping sauce. Considering two out of the first three ingredients in Sweet Chili sauce are sugar and corn syrup (the other being water), understand that it’s that sweet. But hey, I like it. It’s also spicy, but not kick-your-ass spicy. Just spicy.
Could I see McDonald’s adding this sauce permanently? I’d say no, probably not. Which is why you need to at least try it once. Or maybe you can collect a bunch and sell them on eBay in a few decades as collector’s items.
Overall, as a collaboration meal, it’s okay. Everyone loves McNuggets, everyone loves sauces, and everyone loves the feeling that they’re getting something new and exclusive (cool new sauces!). The whole thing is pretty inoffensive, not particularly exciting as a combo meal. But for a little bit of time, it’s gonna feel really good to see Korean food at the McDonald’s drive-thru. At least for me.