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

A stroll through the night market

Night market culture in Taiwan is anything unlike I’ve ever seen. What are quiet strips of concrete and blacktop during the day turn into some of the busiest parts of town at night. Typically night markets start setting up around 3pm-4pm and will be open until the wee hours of the night. You can find the post-bar scene here, but often it is the bar scene.

Asking any teen what their favorite activity is, rarely will you find an answer as common as “walking around the night market”. With food and shopping being two of the Taiwanese’s greatest past times, it’s not hard to understand why.

Street food is a new concept that is all the rage in the States. Here in Taiwan, it’s been around for ages, and it certainly hasn’t lost any luster:


If someone said to me in English, “I’m going to eat Cold”, I would wait for them to finish their sentence. Here in Taiwan, when someone tells me they’re going to eat some Cold (冰), in Chinese of course, I’d have my wallet in hand and shoes on my feet before they could finish their sentence.

As with any tropical island climate, the country of Taiwan is plagued with brutally hot and humid summer months. To adapt, the people of Taiwan have built large air conditioned malls where they spend most daylight hours, sell handkerchiefs and sun-brellas like they never went out of style, and of course, consume plenty of refreshing snacks and beverages.

In the States, when the temperature rises, we go outside for a barbecue, roast some corn on the cob, or maybe go chase down the ice cream truck. In Taiwan, no one in their right mind wishes to light anything on fire, let alone run after a truck, even if the thing being chased does happen to be cold and comes on a cone.

And why would they want ice cream, when they have something better? The Taiwanese have dozens of shops and stalls devoted to selling “bing”(冰), or simply translated, “cold”. “Bing” is a complete dish more than any one ingredient, much like lasagna and S’mores are a total combination of components rather than just pasta or just marshmallow. “Bing”, is simply a big bowl of delicious, subtly sweet and cooling ingredients combined in an icy, watered down sugar syrup. Choices of ingredients range from vendor to vendor, and often you may see the likes of boiled peanuts, tofu hua, grass jelly, miniature tapioca balls, red beans and green beans, and almost without fail the local Taiwanese specialty- ai yu. (Ai yu is a clear light yellow rather flavorless jelly, not very different from the consistency of Jell-O, made from the seeds from a member of the fig family native to Taiwan. Today, ai yu jelly is also sold in a can- but what isn’t?)

What you would think is a completely random smattering of ingredients actually becomes a refreshing dish, more snack than dessert, that can be enjoyed at any time of day

Mercy to the activities of my family this weekend, I had no complaints when I was given both a handkerchief and sun-brella, then chauffered downtown to East Taipei to spend the rest of the afternoon in a huge air conditioned mall. Although lunch was just had, we headed straight for Little South Gate in the food court, where my Uncle reminisced of the days he used to get a bing from another branch of their stores every day it was hot out.

Every day that it was hot out? He must have had a lot of “bing”. Lucky guy.

Little South Gate, 小南门

(various locations throughout Taipei)

Xinyi Eslite, B2
No. 11, Song Gao Road, B2
MRT: Taipei City Hall


I just arrived in Taipei, where I will be for the next three weeks. But before I start on my slew of stories of night market treasures, the various cooling Taiwanese snacks, what’s around the market on this side of the Strait, and most anticipated of all, a documentation of a trip around the island, I wanted to share with you the beautiful green onions that were at the wet market in Guangzhou earlier this week. I just couldn’t wait any longer, because clearly neither could these onions. My go-to lady for greens told me they were young green onions, with tiny white heads and more mild and delicate than their robust elders.

I wonder if these have a specific name in English? Does anyone know? I hope they will still be at the markets when I return in July!

Mango Cucumber Salsa

We miss Mexican food a lot here. It’s like they say, you never know what you have until it’s gone- and growing up in California, where there are no shortage of tacos and burritos and hot dogs wrapped in bacon (those are Mexican, aren’t they?), we’re suffering a bit here. Not to mention, I would kill for an elote from Cafe Habana right now (plenty of fresh corn at the market- but no cojito cheese for miles!)

When the recent issue of Saveur magazine rolled around, with it’s tantalizing cover of crispy tacos and bold text boasting “Secrets of Mexican Cooking”, I was determined to find a recipe that I could recreate, or at least adapt, here in Southern China. After all, I find there to be many similarities in Asian and Latin cooking- there wasn’t that huge Asian Fusion spike in the 90’s for nothing, let me tell you…

But I soon realized that most authentic Mexican recipes call for very specific dried or fresh chiles, or the need for good tortillas- none of which I are available here. I toyed with the idea of substituting local chinese dried chilies in place of the New Mexico or Guajilo chiles. Though excellent and powerful in Chinese cuisine, I doubt they would garner the same savory Mexican flavor I am craving (would they? Does anyone know?). Perhaps my trip to Mexico City in the summer will be just as much a pantry expedition as it will a reunion with friends…

In the meantime, I’m still seeking out some good recipes and some good tricks to recreate the flavors of Mexican cuisine in my own kitchen. This weekend I made this shredded chicken taco dish again, an easy adaptation for a Guangzhou kitchen. Looking through a huge list of recently bookmarked Cinco de Mayo themed recipes, I re-discovered the website Muy Bueno Cookbook along with this recipe for a mango salad, reminiscent of the chile sprinkled mango and jicama sold from carts on the street corners in downtown LA.  Rather than a chunky salad, I preferred to scale it down to a salsa, and with magoes and cucumbers both sold prolifically at the wet market, it was a no-brainer. The recipe called for plenty of chile powder in the salad, but I wanted a more nuanced spice in this salsa, and so also grabbed from the piles of mild peppers at the market.

Cucumbers and peppers (along with taro root displayed) at the wet market


Growing up, I would frequently sit on a stool in the kitchen as I watched my mother cook in the kitchen.  She would educate me as she went along on the importance of cleaning up as she cooked, setting things out before she started stir frying, and making sure to wash the dishes as she went along. At the time, I thought she was just being nitpicky, and franky hated these “lectures” I got when all I wanted was to watch the garlic and ginger sizzle at the bottom of the skillet. But I now realize that she was simply teaching me the basics of what all good chefs know- setting your mise en place, making sure your workstation is sanitary and organized. Funny how everything your mom tells you when you are little suddenly makes sense when you’re older…

She also showed me other important skills, one being how to wield a knife. My mother could (and still can) pulverize garlic into the tiniest minced flecks, slice ginger into the thinnest slivers, and artfully cut carrots and firm tofu into perfectly-square little cubes. The Chinese believe that the proportion of shapes and sizes of a dishes’ components play a big part in the flavor and taste of a dish. Hence, the Chinese have an extensive vocabulary for the prep work of different cuts of meat and vegetables- significantly more than their Western friends.

Whenever I’m prepping a dish like this salsa, spending much longer than anyone typically would to make sure the shallots are appropriately, I compare them to how my mom used to do it. When people make salsa and their tomatoes are cut into huge, uneven chunks, the onions are in unappetizingly large pieces, and the cilantro is not even chopped, I am a little uneasy. Maybe you’d say I was spoiled- I’d say I was taught well. In any case, I’d consider this a secret to a good salsa, or a salad, or any freshly chopped mixed vegetable dish.

Mango Cucumber Salsa

inspired by this recipe from Muy Bueno Cookbook


  • 4 small, ripe yellow mangoes
  • 3 kirby cucumbers
  • 3 shallots, minced
  • 1 small bunch chinese celery (or, one rib of regular celery), leaves discarded
  • 2 mild green peppers, minced
  • 1 mild red pepper, minced
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, stemmed and packed, finely chopped
  • juice of one lime
  • salt, to taste


  1. Peel and cut mangoes into a small dice. The easiest way to do this, I’ve found, is to: cut the stem-end of the mango off so you can easily and securely set the mango on its end on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, slice the peel off, downwards, along the length of the mango. Keep turning and trimming the peel off until your mango is “naked”. Then carefully cut the meat off the pit in the largest slices possible, and dice from there.
  2. Seed the cucumbers, cut into spears and then a small dice
  3. Combine shallots, celery, red and green peppers with lime and salt to taste. Mix well, allowing the shallots to macerate in the lime juice to lessen its sharpness. Combine mango and cucumbers, and toss to mix thoroughly.
  4. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 20-30 minutes. Can be prepared a day ahead, if necessary, but shouldn’t be kept more than a couple of days- which probably won’t be a problem!

Yield: approx. 3 1/2 cups of salsa, or enough to feed 10-12 people for a taco dinner!