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

The tofu lady

For those of you who checked out my post on RecipeRelay, thank you!

On my hunt to create something delicious from fresh market finds, it ultimately wasn’t difficult to settle on tofu as the star. Afterall, my first, only, and current AIM screenname remains tofubrain13, however embarrassing it tends to be when I chat with a new friend. So undoubtedly the tofu table, one of the first to the entrance of my wet market, never ceases to amaze me. The fresh varieties of dried, firm, soft, puffy, thing, thick, fat, spongy…makes me swoon. Is that weird?

Unlike their oft-packaged, cold and sterile Western counterparts, tofu here is sold either by weight or by the pieces at the market. Four small squares of soft tofu cost me 70jiao, or about 10cents. One large chunk weighing one jin (a little more than a pound) cost me 2 kuai (bucks), or about 30cents. It’s a tofumaniac’s paradise at this stand. I love the fact that you can buy the quantity you desire, and carry it home in nothing but a small, flimsy plastic bag, the same method of packaging as every other vegetable and even eggs bought from the market (except with eggs they are gracious enough to double bag in case of any mishaps).

By the time I leave China I have sworn to purchase and cook each of these varieties sold at this table. And, sometime in the near future I will try out my own recipe based on my mom’s memorable seasoned ground pork wrapped with tofu skin, as I had promised weeks ago.

Fresh tofu skin

I love tofu.

It has a bad rap in the States. Although things are changing, tofu is often seen as hippie fuel (though tempeh is thankfully replacing that status) and a bland, texturally-defiant foodstuff produced in a factory. But we Asians know what good tofu tastes like and how versatile it can be, which leads me to nominate tofu as my favorite food- no joke. As a testament, my embarrassingly juvenile AIM screenname is (and always will be) tofubrain13.

Tofu skin (豆腐皮) is one of my favorite varieties of tofu, next to puffy fried tofu and regular plain silky soft tofu.  Often wrapped around logs of gingery soy sauce-flavored ground pork, I still squeal with delight if my mother announces her plans to make the dish when I find myself at home.

Up until now, I’ve only seen tofu skin of the supermarket variety- dried into flat sheets, sometimes the size of legal paper, not unlike a huge sheet of pasta (think if lasagna pasta came in paper-sized reams).  I finally got to see fresh tofu with my own eyes, and even now this picture wants to make me lick the screen.

Once I get my act together, I’ll provide you with a recipe of my mom’s famous wrapped tofu dish.  But for now, only my profession for the love of the dish must do…

Fried Chicken, Thai Street Style

All right Brooklyn, I’ve been reading about your fried chicken frenzy going into 2011, but I’ve got someone I’d like to wager up for a challenge, Bobby Flay Throwdown style.  While in Phuket one evening, the DiploMan and I came across a cluster of food vendors, akin to a U.S. farmers’ market set up without the farmers (kettlecorn, pretzels, and apple cider, only).  On our way to find dinner anyway, we decided to grab a couple of beers at the 7/11 down the street and plunk down on the curb of the small parking strip, taking turns going back and forth for our “small plates” dinner.  What ensued was one of my best meals of the trip.

Certainly the highlight of this hodgepodge meal was the fried chicken.  “Meena’s Fried Chicken”, as advertised on the side of the rickshaw cart, employed four people, all with specific duties.  There was the fryer, who scooped out chicken cuts from a nearby cooler by the armful to dredge in batter and fry in two large woks, filled with green onion and chili.  There was the hacker, who, once the chicken was out of its hot oil bath, took a cleaver to the steaming hot cuts of chicken and with a few solid swoops, hacked each fried hunk of fried goodness into perfect little finger-licking pieces.  This hacker would also, between batches of chicken, pack up little bags of sweet-sour-spicy dipping sauce and tie them with a rubber band, all in one fluid motion.  There was the packer, who would take the cuts of chicken that you threw at her (indicating that Yes, these are the ones that I want) and pack them in a clear plastic doggy bag lined with paper, along with the sweet-sour-spicy dipping sauce, calculating the amount due as she went.  Then of course there was Meena herself, overseeing the process and counting money.

The chicken came out of the fryer in batches according to cuts.  First, whole chickens were laid out which, assuming that was the way they did fried chicken, we bought right away.  40baht- just about $1.30!  Though the batter sang to us like little crispy juicy salty angels, we were slightly disappointed that the meat was bare and that we had to chew around little chicken livers and hearts.  And of course the head, which as in China we’re still not quite sure what to do with, we topped apile of discarded bones in front of us so that it looked like some psycho’s chicken graveyard.  However as soon as Meena’s crew was done with the whole chickens, a batch of legs and thighs came out (snatched up too quickly, before I knew I had to pounce on the chickens I wanted), followed by wings and finally, breast cutlets.  We tried these all; the wings my favorite (cutlets, B’s favorite), all while sitting on a curb, lips moist with a coating of oil, wishing that all my Brooklyn buddies could get a taste of these.

staring down on my bag of chicken goodness

Thai Iced Coffee

Richer, milkier, silkier than the versions I used to order back home, the iced coffees and teas in Thailand were out of this world.  The two women working behind the cart, mother and daughter, are like two witches concocting a magic brew.  They know the perfect ratios of coffee/tea to condensed milk to ice cubes to sugar to powdered milk, scooping and pouring each of these ingredients with warp speed and precision.