The sky is deep blue and bright outside the plate-glass window at Hot Breads bakery on Hillcroft. On the shopping center sidewalk, a young man runs by windmilling his right arm in an enormous arc.
"Wow, he must really like this weather," says my lunch companion, mistaking his gesture for a show of enthusiasm.
"I think he's practicing his bowling for a cricket match," I observe.
Hot Breads Bakers and Confectioners
713-785-1212. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Aloo puff: $1.25
Minced goat croissant: $1.50
Keema pizza: $1.50
Chicken tikka Danish: $1.50
Chicken croquette: $1.50
Chicken hot dog: $1.50
Part of the Foreign Franchise Invasion series
This part of Hillcroft is dominated by businesses that serve Houston's 130,000 Indian and Pakistani residents. There are Indian restaurants, grocery stores, video outlets, travel agencies and hair salons. And now, to make the subcontinentals feel really at home, there's a Hot Breads franchise. This is the chain's third outlet in the United States (the others being in New Jersey and Florida). There are now more than 70 locations of the fast-growing Hot Breads restaurant franchise around the world, most of them in the chain's home country of India.
We sample a fantastic spinach- and potato-filled pastry known as an aloo croissant, which has an exotic fenugreek aroma and tastes like sag paneer inside a puff pastry. And we try the tangy chicken croquette, masala-spiced chicken and cheese wrapped in pastry dough. I also get a chicken hot dog sub; the wiener tastes a tad bland, but it isn't bad slathered with some the "maggi chilli masala" sauce that sits on the table.
On a previous visit, I got another chicken hot dog creation that looked like a model of a six-cylinder combustion engine executed in frankfurter segments and bread. The hot dogs were cut into six one-inch pieces, arranged in two rows of three, wrapped in hot dog bun dough and baked. The whole unlikely sandwich was then slathered with mayonnaise and set in the display case. I think I would have liked it more without the mayonnaise, which turns an unappetizing transparent color and tastes funny when it's microwaved.
But I was very excited about the goat doughnuts. That's what my kids called the flaky croissants filled with cumin-scented ground goat meat in zesty curry sauce. Hindus don't eat beef and Muslims don't eat pork, so Hot Breads, like most Indian eateries, sticks to chicken and goat. There is a framed certificate on the wall verifying that the meats are strictly halal. There are lots of vegetarian choices here too, including eggless cakes for ovophobes.
While I'm crazy about the wacky fusion of French pastry and Indian food here at Hot Breads, not everyone appreciates it. I brought a Hot Breads meatless pizza, topped with corn kernels and green peppers, to a veggie-head at the office and she was unimpressed. She said she thought it needed some tomatoes.
Personally, I prefer the keema pizza, which is topped with green peppers and cheese and seasoned with a masala mix. Granted, without tomatoes and oregano, it's tough to recognize as pizza, but the taste is sensational anyway. My kids and I also had a hearty onion tart that tasted like a custard-filled quiche. Dessert was a mixed fruit tart with cherries, blueberries, kiwifruit, peaches, strawberries and pineapple chunks glazed into a sweet cookie shell.
For today's dessert, my friend and I split a mango gâteau, an ornately decorated French pastry made with lady fingers sandwiched between two layers of succulent mango mousse. All in all, it's a fabulous lunch, and my companion insists on buying more savory pastries to take home and eat later.
The first Hot Breads opened in Madras, India, in 1989. The brainchild of an NRI (nonresident Indian) marketing professor named M. Mahadevan, the cafe was supposed to supply Southern Indians with French-style baked goods. But once the pepperoni, ham and sausage in the pizzas and croissants was replaced with halal meats seasoned with Indian spices, the food turned into an unlikely fusion of French and Indian cooking.
The first restaurant was an incredible hit, particularly among Indian youth, and the concept spread quickly. Hot Breads was the first place to offer pizza in many of the Indian towns where it opened. Its main appeal was its very Western-ness. The NRI community in the United States and Europe is so large and so affluent that young Indians have come to envy and emulate their expat cousins in the West.
Bombay retailers "are increasingly marketing to a clientele that is either foreign-returned or is familiar with the West through media and family members abroad," writes Lavina Melwani, an NRI from New York, in a column on littleindia.com. "Hot Breads satisfies the cravings of a West-influenced crowd with French and Italian breads, American-style salads, pizzas, burgers and deli food. Here the crowds gather as they would in a Starbucks in New York "
Over the course of the 1990s, Hot Breads became so popular that Indians around the world began to clamor for its baked goods. Following the example of American fast-food corporations, the savvy Mahadevan franchised the operation to fellow NRIs in other countries. There are now Hot Breads bakeries in the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Paris. Each outlet serves its own local variation on the evolving East-West fusion cuisine.
This is probably not what Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling book Fast Food Nation, was thinking about when he wrote, "The values, tastes and industrial practices of the American fast food industry are being exported to every corner of the globe, helping to create a homogenized international culture that sociologist Benjamin R. Barber has labeled 'McWorld.' "
Barber and Schlosser fret about the emergence of a world culture based on bland American tastes. But they didn't take into account the Weirdness Factor -- people don't always behave like sheep.
In May 2001, Hindu activists in Bombay smeared cow dung on a statue of Ronald McDonald in protest of the corporation's alleged use of beef products in its french fries. A Hindu nationalist group, which is part of India's alliance government, called for the immediate closure of all McDonald's outlets in the country.
According to Schlosser, the genesis of the McDonald's protest movement was a libel lawsuit that McDonald's filed against Greenpeace activists in England in 1994. Since the activists couldn't afford a lawyer, a worldwide network of anti-McDonald's volunteers joined together to gather evidence and share information to be used in the trial.
Worldwide opponents of McDonald's were thus congealed into an international network. So, although the lawsuit about McDonald's beefy french fries was filed in Seattle by an Indian-American attorney on behalf of three American Hindus who didn't eat beef, it was no surprise when the allegations sparked protests in Bombay.
Worldwide protests against McDonald's have brought together disparate political groups from around the globe to form a sort of globalized anti-globalization movement -- an anti-McWorld, if you will. Is it a world culture or a world counterculture? Whatever it is, it's not what the sociologists were expecting.
Nor did anyone predict that businessmen in developing nations would have the spunk to turn the cultural tide. In Central America, India and East Asia, restaurant entrepreneurs are creating wildly successful international franchise chains based on the model of McDonald's. And now those chains are doing some globalizing of their own.
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My favorite item at Hot Breads is called a chicken tikka Danish. It's a large portion of chopped chicken in a mild tomato-based curry baked in a flaky pastry shell. The filling in this unlikely Danish is a story unto itself.
While Indians were getting addicted to pizza in the last decade, the most popular dish in England became chicken tikka masala. The Anglo-Indian fusion dish is said to have originated in a British curry house when a customer asked for gravy on his dry chicken tandoori. A bemused Indian chef reportedly opened a can of Campbell's tomato soup, added a little of the ubiquitous Indian spice blend called masala, heated it up and poured it on the chicken. According to the BBC, chicken tikka masala, or CTM as it is now known, is eaten in sandwiches, on pizzas, as a frozen dinner and in any number of other permutations, including CTM-flavored potato chips. Chicken tikka masala has also become the favorite symbol of the ascendancy of world culture in political speeches and newspaper editorials. The British foreign minister proudly calls it "Britain's true national dish," while the Tories rail that the popularity of CTM represents a breakdown in traditional British values.
Does the bright orange, tomato-flavored Anglo-Indian chicken tikka masala at Hot Breads on Hillcroft symbolize McDonaldized world culture? Or is it a triumph of the anti-McWorld counterculture? I'm not really sure, but it makes a lovely filling for a flaky Danish.
"Think global, and eat local," wrote Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of the Slow Food group, which opposes the spread of fast food. I wonder what he would make of the Hot Breads franchise on Hillcroft, where you can think and eat globally and locally -- all at the same time.