The Chinese Hamburger

When we were growing up, my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant was called dong lai suen, and I remember it specifically because I could get my favorite dish: The Chinese Hamburger.

Of course this isn’t what it was called on the menu, nor was it what how my parents ordered it from the waiters, nor did it even resemble an actual American hamburger all that much. What it was, was a juicy disc of ground and juicy (so juicy!) pork wrapped in a thin chewy dumpling-like wrapper. The whole thing was pan fried so the outside was oily and the bottom and top crispy and slightly charred. The whole thing was the size of, well, it was the size of a hamburger. In any case, whatever it was or was not, it most definitely was delicious.

I’ve recently encountered yet another Chinese Hamburger. Well, hamburger-ish. This is a different version of the Chinese hamburger I remember from my youth, so it’s technically a hamburger twice-removed. But it’s got the same characteristics: flavorful meat wrapped in a sesame-seed speckled doughy outer layer, eaten with your hands from a wax paper pouch on the street as meat juices drip down your fingers. Dare you say it’s not a burger(ish)?!

This particular “burger” is made super fresh to order- the line for this street market vendor stretches the longest at the Raohe Night Market in Taipei. Sliced strips of a peppered beef filling (heavily peppered, to my great delight) is scooped with a long pair of metal chopsticks and placed in a small disc of rolled-out dough, not unlike a dumpling only three times as big and meaty. This meat and dough is taken in the palm and gets dipped- meat first- in a vat of chopped scallions, where they generously stick like flies on honey as the dough is quickly wrapped back over the meat and scallions to form a bun. What look like big fluffy smooth white cream puffs are tossed aside to be baked.

The baking process is just as unique as the Chinese Hamburger itself. The buns are literally stuck to the inside of a large, cylindrical brick oven wall that is heated by charcoals. I could make another comparison to wood-fired pizza ovens, but I think I’ve done enough International food comparisons for today.

After waiting for what seems like an eternity, a pouch containing a steaming hot bun is finally handed over. They operative word here is: Hot. Hot out of a hot coal oven. So hot, that even after ten minutes I was not able to bite through my beloved “burger”. After fifteen minutes though, I couldn’t wait any longer. Juicy, chewy, tender, peppery, hot, salty, steamy. Sirens blared in my head. This version of the Hamburger hasn’t replaced my love of In-n-Out, Shake Shack, or the Chinese Hamburger from my youth. No sir, it’s only been added to the esteemed (and growing) list.

胡椒餅, 饒河夜市創始攤

饒河總店 台北市饒河街249號

Black Pepper Buns, at the Raohe Street Night Market

Raohe Market Shop, 249 Raohe Street, Taipei

China is big.

Did you guys know that?

The CIA’s online world factbook has a bounty of interesting numbers on China. As I read the list of China’s bordering countries- Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, India, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia (northeast), Russia (northwest), Tajikistan, Vietnam- I think about everything it’s done for the Chinese food culture.  Naturally the variety of cuisine varies in every country, but in a land as large as China, you’ll see the influences of these neighbors trickling in from every one of its fourteen borders.

Mexican food has such a large place in today’s American diet.  Tex-Mex, Baja California cuisine, and Southwest style flavors- I can only imagine what our diet in the States would be if we were not flanked by two countries, but rather, ten or twenty. And no offense Canada, but your contribution of Poutine isn’t quite on par with Mexico’s gift of Nachos (but it’s okay, because you gave us hockey).

Only when I moved here did I see evidence of the Western Chinese muslim population, looking more Arab than any Chinese person I had been accustomed to seeing. In Guangzhou they sell nuts and dried fruit from their wooden wagon carts next to the subway entrance, and keep the city’s muslim restaurant count high.

The DiploMan and I stopped in at one of these quick-eats joints a few weeks ago.  Pointing to a wall of a pictures lit under a fluorescent light tube, we selected a couple of hearty rice and noodle based dishes.  It was certainly different than any Chinese food I had eaten in the past, but still had a familiarity that I suppose any beef and noodle dish does in referencing my food memory bank. Maybe it was the satisfaction of an oily plate of noodles, but I could see how Western China survived centuries of turmoil and conquests off of this stuff.

Liu Gong- small town living

Where does an hour and a half down the Li River take us?  Nowhere, really.  But in the middle of nowhere is a small town called LiuGong (留公).

In our exploration of the small village, we came across as family restaurant on the top of a hill overlooking the river. Built on a cement slab with a stone roof that looked like a carpark, the aesthetic was pretty similar to the rest of the town.  A small group of Chinese tourists and a couple of Czech bikers were sitting around the fire pit in the middle of the concrete floor- so of course we were inclined to join.

As the river and cold had built up our appetites, we ordered a few plates of homestyle fried rice.  I’ve just finished reading Jen Lin-Liu’s Serve the People- a stir-fried journey through China, and there are a few passages that jumped out at me while reading.  One is a bit of advice which was passed down to the author: “there is a difference between best restaurants and favorite restaurants”.  In the states, I don’t think I had much of a distinction.  I though Franny’s, or Prime Meats, and ok Blue Hill too, were simultaneously my favorite and the best restaurants.  But things differ in China, where class distinctions are so apparent, and there is such a huge jump between new and old.  The best restaurant in town might not be my most favorite, and vice versa.

Something about this meal- eating on fold-out mini chairs on a concrete slab, among karsts rising out of the fog, with and international cast of characters snapping pictures left and right- I found to be so memorable and endearing.  One of my favorite meals in China so far- even if it wasn’t really a full “meal”.  I had ordered a tomato-beef fried rice, and each time my huge spoon hit the bottom of the shallow cheap plastic plates, I scooped another spoonful of beefy tomato-y rice into my mouth with glee.

The Beauty of Bones

Forgive the radio silence over the last few days.  Between getting a part time job (not food related, therefore, boring and not worth writing about here) and having my parents in town for a short 36hour visit, I really didn’t have a bit of spare time to write.  I did, however, had a bit of time last Friday to prepare a pot of soup to welcome my mom and dad to China.

My mom’s cooking has a lot to do with my tastes and attitudes and opinions about food today.  She’s been a proponent of eating well, eating balanced, and eating naturally, long before Slow Food and Michelle Obama were at the forefront of our nation’s policies.  She’s instilled in me a good sense for hosting a small party of six and cooking as if a small nation was joining for dinner.  To her credit, I can wield a knife with basic grace, whether it be peeling a pear in one go or butchering a whole chicken.  There were a lot of simple things she taught me about food and the basics of cooking throughout the course of my childhood, and I am forever indebted to her for those things.

One talent I learned early on from her was the miracle of soup-making.  More often than not there would be a huge pot of pork/beef/chicken bones slowly simmering away on our stovetop, the meat cooked until tender and the broth ready to be cooked with noodles for dinner, reheated for lunch the next day…and usually again even later for a Chinese version of the late night snack.  My mom loved soup, and like most Chinese people believes there to be great healing and medicinal purposes in a great stock.

Long after I left the house, and after reading recipe after recipe, I realized in addition to the soothing qualities of soup, there existed a great versatility for meat stock.  Today I have a basic recipe that follows no specific measurements but always works, just like mom’s.  If I’m sick, I’ll throw in triple the ginger.  If I know I’m making a stock to be used for italian-mediterranean dishes, I’ll toss in various dried herbs like rosemary and sage.  If I will probably just be eating the soup and stock for dinner for the entire week, in will go some daikon radish, shiitake mushrooms and eventually, vermicelli noodles.

Here in China, the meat markets sing with the possibilities of soup making, much to my delight.  Each vendor has dozens of cuts of meats and bones laid out on display, from gelatinous pigs’ feet to delicate squab breasts.  Approaching a pig butcher, my asking for neck bones led to a vague finger pointing to a cluster of red meat sitting right in front of me.  After a bit of clarification- making sure that yes, this is pig, and yes, these are neck bones, I was set to go.  And from this, the picture below, I made a big pot of pork and vegetable soup to welcome my mom and dad to China.  Just like home.