Earlier this year, based on evidence of a two-thousand-year-old sandwich (rou jia mo) from Shaanxi Province, Chinese media outlets began asserting that the burger, that most iconic of American foods, had in fact been invented in their country.
To be sure, Chinese people have been wedging cooked meat inside bread for some time, and several of these sandwiches have pedigrees that predate the mid-nineteenth-century origins of the hamburger. And while the Golden Arches has more than two thousand outlets across the Middle Kingdom, the Yankee burger outlets are still vastly outnumbered by street vendors serving up tastier burger-ish sandwiches.
Here’s a look at just some of the items on the Chinese value menu:
“MEAT-STUFFED BREAD” 肉夹馍 ROU JIA MO
This snack from Xi’an, in northeastern China, is said to have started off with a horsemeat filling — but nowadays red-braised pork is favored (unless you’re in the city’s Muslim Quarter, where mutton and lamb reign). When you order a rou jia mo, you’ll be asked whether you prefer it “all lean,” “half-lean,” or “all skin.” The corresponding ratio of meat and fat is then plucked out of the braising pot, cleavered into chunks (sometimes with a green chili pepper in the mix), and scooped into a pale round flatbread split open on one side. In Xi’an, this sandwich is almost invariably paired with liang pi, a dish of slippery flat noodles splashed with chili oil and vinegar.
Recently, the rou jia mo has been gaining fans in far-flung places, usually introduced as a “Chinese hamburger.” Xi’an Famous Foods, in New York, has built their empire with the “stewed pork burger.” And there’s a Chinese restaurant in London called Murger-Han that is trying to popularize the ungainly portmanteau of “meat” and “burger.” The hamburger may serve as the most convenient shorthand, but this sandwich is closer kin to a pulled-pork sandwich or sloppy Joe.
MACAU PORK-CHOP BUN 澳门猪排包 ZHU PAI BAO
Like the rest of Macanese food, the pork-chop bun deserves to be more widely known. A legacy of colonization, this snack is the Asian descendant of Portugal’s bifana sandwich. Picture a crusty roll sandwiching a bone-in cutlet. The bread is crunchy where it counts and chewy everywhere else. Traditionally, the pork chop is marinated in soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, and five-spice powder before being fried or grilled over charcoal. Its meaty contours often extend beyond the bun like craggy, savory peninsulas. The math is simple: bread plus meat plus bread, minus all the garnish. It’s also cheap enough that you can still fill up on one after losing your shirt at the casino.
TAIWANESE PORK-BELLY BUNS 割包 GUA BAO
Often translated as “sliced wrapper,” the gua bao is a clamshell-style steamed bun folded over a thick slice of braised pork belly, garnished with pickled mustard greens and a peanut-sugar crumble. In Taiwan, the gua bao was originally a festival food offered to the earth god because of its similarity to a purse overflowing with cash; now it’s a staple of night-market stalls and roadside stands. Westerners might recognize these as “pork buns,” a dish that has become ubiquitous from Australia to Argentina.
DONKEY BURGER 驴肉火烧 LU ROU HUO SHAO
Two towns, Baoding and Hejian, claim to be the home of the donkey burger, but they differ mainly in the shape of the bun: a light griddle-toasted flatbread that gets its flaky texture from donkey lard. Baoding’s are round, while Hejian’s are rectangular, but the middle of both is all donkey (and maybe a diced green pepper). The donkey tastes like corned beef. The popularity of the sandwich might explain the local idiom in Hebei Province: “In heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat.”
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