When Boston native Kevin Land gets the urge for pizza, he has his choice of ordering from Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Domino's and a host of other chains.
Land, a videographer with the independent travel show "Jet Set Zero," presently lives in Seoul, South Korea. When he dined at Pizza Hut recently, though, he was taken by surprise.
"I looked over the menu and ordered a small BBQ chicken pizza, a favorite of mine back home," he said "When it came it had corn, BBQ chicken, green peppers, onions, and a giant circle of something yellow, which turned out to be sweet potato."
While American pizza is tremendously popular in Asian countries, expect to see it served with a dash of local culture. While American chains set ground rules on the way international operators run their restaurants, most also allow some flexibility in the menu.
"The "base" of all Domino's pizzas is universal: dough, sauce, cheese, core toppings," said Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre. "Local owners can customize some toppings and some sides to meet local tastes, but they have to make sense for the brand and, of course, must meet our quality standards."
And some of the combinations can be downright odd to American tastes. Toppings for pizza in Asian countries include items like corn, which is also popular in Australia and several European countries, and seafood such as scallops, squid, smoked salmon and lobster.
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Jennifer Bergeron, an HR training specialist from Colorado, reports that Pizza Hut in Japan offers a pie with the option of dried squid. Marjorie Asturias, a freelance writer from Dallas, has fond memories of a mutton-topped pie she enjoyed at a Pizza Hut in Borneo.
And if you order a cheese pizza in Korea chances are it will automatically be topped with corn as well, Land said.
Pizza Hut offers a "Shrimp Roll Pizza" in its Korean stores, which feature more than a dozen whole shrimp baked into the crust. In a manner similar to the domestic Cheesy Bites pizza, the crust is design to break apart, with a shrimp tail serving as a handle. The company also offers a "Hot Dog Pizza," with whole hot dogs baked into the crust.
Many American pizza chains have long been eying Asia as a hot growth opportunity. Pizza Hut, for example, was the first restaurant chain to introduce pizza and Western-style casual dining to China, in 1990, and the first to introduce pizza delivery to China in 2001. Today, Pizza Hut is the top casual dining brand in mainland China, with 400 Pizza Hut Casual Dining restaurants in nearly 100 cities and more than 75 Pizza Hut Home Service delivery units.
Yum! Brands, which operates Pizza Hut and KFC restaurants in China, has staked much of its future on growth in that country. Between the two brands, the company opened 92 restaurants during the 2009 first quarter and plans to open 475 restaurants during the year.
Papa John's operates 130 restaurants in China and 69 in South Korea. The company stated in its 2008 annual report that China would be a focus of future growth.
And when Domino's first opened a restaurant in Japan in 1995, there was not a word in the Japanese language for pepperoni. Now pepperoni is one of the country's most embraced toppings, the company says. Domino's operates more than 180 stores in Japan along with 305 in South Korea. Domino's has yet to make serious inroads into China, though, operating fewer than 10 units there.
In China, the Domino's menu features a Lobster Salad pizza, which also includes squid and fish eggs.
And in Japan, Pizza Hut offers the "Double Roll Pizza," pizza, featuring honey maple syrup, sausages rolled into the crust, peas, corn and miniature hamburgers on top.
"Recently, the stores in Korea offered a pizza that featured shrimp and the eggs of flying fish blended in a cream cheese," McIntyre said. "It sold remarkably well, I'm told."
And while pizza in the United States is often thought of as jeans-and-t-shirt food, in Asian countries it is anything but. Christy Wong, a publicity assistant with Tyndale House Publishers in Illinois, visited China several years ago and dined at a Pizza Hut restaurant in the city of Wuhan during her stay.
"Pizza Huts here are not exactly considered "fine dining," but the decorations at atmosphere for this one were somewhat elegant. It had mood lighting and nice tables and chairs," she said. "This was the nicest Pizza Hut I've been to, by far!"
Click here to view images of other unique pizzas from Asia.