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:
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
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.
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.”
For where to get a donkey sandwich in Shanghai, check out our Atlas.
棺材板 guan cai ban
When archaeologists from a university in Tainan City noted that a sandwich from a little shop nearby—made of hollowed-out bread filled with chicken-liver stew—reminded them of the tombs they’d been excavating, the shopkeeper declared it the “coffin sandwich.” But how has such a morbid name survived in a culture so superstitious about death? As it turns out, the Chinese word for “coffin” happens to be a homophone for “titles” and “riches.”
The recipe has evolved over time. Originally, cooks filled a piece of toast (pain de mie from a Pullman loaf), but nowadays the standard preparation involves a thick slab of bread that’s been deep-fried until golden brown. A few quick slashes turns it into a toast casket, which is filled with a thick creamy stew that can include diced chicken, ham, shrimp, or cuttlefish, as well as peas, corn, and carrots. Street versions use a base of chicken soup that has been chowderized by the addition of evaporated milk.
KEELUNG NUTRITION SANDWICH
營養三明治 ying yang san ming zhi
The Taiwanese “nutrition sandwich,” born in the night markets of Keelung City, is the performance-art version of the club sandwich. Upon receiving an order, purveyors form dough into a baguettes, roll it in bread crumbs, deep-fry it, snip it open, slather it with a sweet mayonnaise, and then bedeck it with quarters of soy-braised egg, slices of cucumber and tomato, and rosettes of ham. The deep-frying of the dough turns the crust into a crackling good time while keeping the crumb eminently pliable—thus is achieved the “Q” texture (chewy-crunchy-gummy) so beloved of the Taiwanese. It’s not uncommon for people to make a special trip to Keelung just to eat this sandwich, and street vendors are happy to accommodate their preferences. Some people ask for an all-egg sandwich, others prefer it without the pork, and still others say to order it swimming in mayo.
BEEF SLICES IN CHILI SAUCE WITH FLATBREAD
夫妻肺片锅盔 fu qi fei pian guo kui
Guo kui refers to a trencher-like flatbread with a few origin stories that all suggest a military birthplace. One ancient general is said to have fed his hungry army without the use of cookware by directing his soldiers to bake dough in their metal helmets. Another tale describes it as a bivouac-baked bread, made so thick that soldiers could wear it as an arrow-proof vest. On the streets of Sichuan, vendors still make and sell massive guo kui as big as a cauldron lid and nearly as heavy, but it’s the saucer-sized versions that are suited for sandwiches. They’re sliced open and stuffed with fu qi fei pian, the classic cold appetizer of sliced beef heart, tongue, tripe, and crushed peanuts bathed in numbing chili oil. The flatbread soaks up the oil and helps buffer the effect of the Sichuan peppercorns.
GOLD COIN CHICKEN
金錢雞 gum tsin gai
This sandwich came into being in the barbecue shops of Hong Kong, when off-cuts of pork fat and chicken liver were threaded onto metal spits and basted with char siu maltose glaze. It’s brilliant, actually: the caramelization concentrates at the edges (as any lover of burnt ends knows well), and these meat trimmings are all edge. They’re called “gold coins” because each chunk of meat has a hole in the middle, just like old-style Chinese copper coins. (You could also say that the moneyed moniker is an aspirational name for what amounts to a working-class meal of offal.) The delicate steamed buns that bookend the meat are what make this a sandwich—but those are merely the thin veneer of civility.