Roujiamo: the 2,200-year-old Chinese “hamburger”
The roujiamo, a Chinese pork and flatbread sandwich, has been called the “world’s oldest hamburger”. As is often the case in China, its exact origins are lost over time.
My first encounter with the roujiamo (肉夹馍) took place a quarter of a century ago, on a winter’s day, in a windswept and freezing cold Beijing alley.
There, I came across a weather-beaten traveling salesman in a thick quilted cotton jacket and fur hat, who was cooking roujiamo to order on the back of a three-wheeled bicycle cart. .
From a boiling soot-black cauldron, suspended above a flaming ball of coal, he ladles long braised pieces of pork which he places on a block in the shape of a tree stump.
Then, using a chopper, he minced the pork with what seemed like a whole fist’s worth of cilantro, added a spoonful of the rich broth from the pot and wielded the chopper once more. to deftly slice a crispy, hand-sized, freshly baked flatbread and nestle the glistening pile of meat in it.
When he handed it to me, wrapped in a plastic bag, it was so hot it scalded my fingers. I carefully parted the edges of the bag and took a bite.
In the fading light of that winter afternoon, the roujiamo – the crispiness of the bun, the tender, melting pork with its scorching juices and the spiciness of the cilantro – was a revelation.
Roujiamo, in its most accomplished form, is a primitive thing. Cooked and sold in the elements, it’s street food that’s shrouded in an aura of ancient dynasties, the Silk Road and distant desert frontiers.
The sandwich is closely associated with the city of Xi’an, located in the north-central part of Shaanxi province. Since 202 BCE, Xi’an has been both the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and the capital of 13 more or less successive Chinese dynasties.
The preparation of meat used for roujiamo stuffing traditionally dates back to the Warring States period (475 to 221 BCE).
The introduction of Central Asian flatbreads, such as those used in roujiamo, to China is often credited to Ban Chao, a Chinese general who spent more than 30 years fighting a confederation of nomadic tribes during the 1st century to regain control of the most remote regions of western China.
Each family has its own roujiamo recipe, but there are constants.
First, lazhi (腊汁), or broth, includes a list of spices that resembles the manifesto of a Silk Road caravan: ginger, star anise, cassia, Sichuan pepper, loquat, and two medicinal herbs called Fructus Amomi and Lanxangia tsaoko (all originally grown in China); dried mandarin peel (probably grown in the Indo-Burma region); white pepper, sand ginger and cardamom (from southern India); cumin (from West Asia); nutmeg and cloves (from the Spice Islands of Indonesia), to name the most common.
Special attention is given to “aged” (陈年老汁) products, the most legendary examples of which are said to have been lovingly nurtured and bubbling for decades or even centuries.
Once the broth is prepared, thick slices of pork belly are simmered for hours. The flatbread, called baijimo (白吉馍), takes its name from the current town of Beiji.
Located some 130 km northwest of Xi’an, the city was once a horse supply station along China’s equivalent of the Pony Express system, which stretched west to the most remote areas. away from the empire.
Baijimo was traditionally made by sticking partially risen dough against the wall of a Central Asian-style wood-fired oven. Today, for the sake of simplicity and speed, it is often pan-fried until crispy.
Unfortunately, due to rapidly rising living standards and government regulations, the more rustic styles of roujiamo have largely been driven from the back streets of Chinese cities. But the roujiamo is still very popular in China, and it is not in danger of disappearing. Its enduring popularity has spawned many national chains such as Zhang Family Ziwu Road Roujiamo (子午路张记肉夹馍) and Bingz Crispy Burger (西少爷).
And even in bustling southern Chinese cities like Shenzhen, you can often find a roujiamo vendor deep in local food courts, though the pork is simmering in an electric slow cooker rather than over an open fire.
Admittedly, roujiamo is far from being a perfect dish. Although it’s compared to a burger, it’s notoriously dangerous to eat on the run. A proper roujiamo is filled to the brim, regardless of the potential consequences for clothes and the dry cleaning budget. (Packing it in a plastic bag helps, but only to a certain extent).
“You have to use both hands to eat the roujiamou, otherwise the filling comes out on both sides of the bun,” says Chen Xiaoqing, a Beijing-based filmmaker. “It’s not really possible to walk and eat roujiamou at the same time.
Chen has spent the better part of the past few decades mapping the Chinese culinary landscape in a hugely popular series of food documentaries, including Netflix’s Flavorful Origins. While the style of roujiamo people are most familiar with is associated with Xi’an, there are actually a whole range of styles, all very different from each other.
His favorite dish is Tongguan roujiamo (潼关肉夹馍), named after a garrison town that in the distant past guarded a strategic pass about 120 km east of Xi’an. The flatbread used for Tongguan roujiamo is different from that used in Xi’an style. With less leaven, it is densely folded like a snake charmer’s basket; Crispy and flaky, the bread breaks into the pork with every bite.
“The surface is really rough and uneven, so when you pick it up, you feel good about it,” says Chen. “It takes a lot of heart to do things right, but when it happens I get dizzy.
Other common designs include niurou (腊牛肉), a close cousin of corned beef associated with Xi’an’s large Muslim population. The city of Qishan, located about 120 km west of Xi’an, has its own version made with minced pork and red chili peppers. In recent years, a variation called duijia (对夹), originating in Chifeng, in remote Inner Mongolia, has taken China by storm: it consists of a bun made from millet flour and a filling crispy smoked pork base.
Roujiamo has also made its way abroad. Mr Chen says that his production team, who were traveling to London to watch a Chelsea football team match, luckily came across a restaurant called Xi’an Impression which was selling roujiamo just opposite the Emirates Stadium. Bingz Crispy Burger has opened locations in Singapore and Canada. In New York, Xi’an native David Shi and his son Jason Wang turned a basement stall in a Flushing mall into a local empire called Xi’an Famous Foods, which now has a dozen of establishments. Wang says there was never any doubt that roujiamo would feature prominently on the menu.
“It’s such a classic Xi’an dish,” he said. “That would be like saying we’re going to open an American brunch restaurant, but without the bacon.
Roujiamo leaves room for experimentation and innovation. Seitan roujiamo, made from wheat gluten, has made occasional appearances on Xi’an Famous Foods’ specialty board. In Xi’an itself, it is possible to find a mixture of roujiamo and malatang (麻辣烫), the spicy Sichuan soup. In malatang roujiamo, a traditional bun is stuffed with winding ribbons of tofu skin, sliced potatoes and thick slices of seaweed, all bathed in an incendiary dose of chili oil.
Still, roujiamo has proven stubbornly resistant to reinvention, and the best versions don’t stray too far from the classic, rough-and-tumble approach. McDonald’s learned this the hard way in 2021, when the company finally decided to try its hand at the “world’s oldest burger”. Roujiamo appeared on the breakfast menu for a limited time of 24 days to mark the Chinese New Year – and quickly sparked piles of furious hashtags for being, disconcertingly, prepared with chicken (served in criminally thin portions, to boot). Roujiamo has not appeared on the map since.
What’s next for roujiamo? During our interview, Mr. Chen mentioned that he had heard of a famous Chinese restaurateur who is working on developing a roujiamo that makes it easier for people to eat while walking. Then he started laughing.
“I feel like if you try to eat a good roujiamou while walking down the street, that’s kind of an insult – kind of disrespectful,” he said. Chen pauses for a moment, as if lost in a happy memory. “To do it justice, you have to sit still, close your eyes and savor every bite.
BBC.com’s World’s Table show “breaks the kitchen ceiling” by changing the way the world thinks about food, through the past, present and future.