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.
Black Pepper Buns, at the Raohe Street Night Market
Raohe Market Shop, 249 Raohe Street, Taipei