Who invented the hamburger? According to Hamburger Heaven, a book about the history of hamburgers, the beefy snack was invented in the late 1800’s in New York City. Sailors based in the port of Hamburg rolled into NYC demanding cooked, seasoned ground-beef patties. American vendors were quick to accommodate, but added a convenient twist of their own in the form of a soft white bun. The snack was coined a “Hamburger” in honour of the men who craved them.
But like so many American traditions, like gunplay and binge gambling, it turns out the Chinese were a couple millennia ahead of the craze. Yes the Chinese Hamburger exists, and it’s been filling the hunger gap since the (insert alloy) age.
I happened upon the Chinese Hamburger at Chinese Traditional Bun (536 Dundas St. West), a subterranean Chinese Food restaurant tucked into the southern perimeter of Kensington Market. It’s a dim, subdued place, but the bowls of sauces behind the glass in the frontal kitchen suggest a bold approach. This place feels more like a laboratory than a kitchen, and every dish sparkles with a medley of big, challenging flavours.
I’d visited the restaurant many times before discovering the hamburger; listed on the menu as Xian Cured Pork in Bread, it’s easy to miss. But when I overheard someone order its more casual moniker, The Chinese Hamburger, I had to inquire.
“What’s the Chinese Hamburger,” I asked the woman behind the glass.
“It’s like the American Hamburger,” she said, leaning in and squinting a touch, as if to share a secret. “But with 2,000 years of history.”
Upon ordering the Chinese Hamburger, the chef dredges a morsel of slow-cooked pork shoulder from a simmering cauldron spiced with chili oil, soya, green onions and cardamom. The pork is minced into a pulp on a cutting board, then placed inside a toasted, house-made white bun reminiscent of an English muffin. The cook drizzles the steaming meat with chili oil and tops it with pickled garlic. The end result is an aromatic pocket of porky flavours.
It’s small, but intense.
On a subsequent visit, proprietor Ma furthered shared some history on the Chinese Hamburger. It was the snack of choice for the soldiers who defended Xian City in the Shanxi Province over 2,000 years ago, he says. The soldiers were fond of the burgers because, like today’s burgers, they were filling and traveled well. Ma says that today, the snack continues to be a local favourite in Xian City.
Xian Cured Pork costs $2.29. As a complement to the burger, I recommend the Jellied Bean Curd with Salty/Sweet/Sour and Chili Sauce – which showcases many of Chinese Traditional Bun’s array of exotic sauces in a single dish.
Perhaps they should offer a super-size combo, which as far as inventions go, is an unarguably American.
Chinese Traditional Bun / 536 Dundas St. West
416 299 9011
Christopher Hutsul is an illustrator, cartoonist, commercial director and storyteller extraordinaire. His studio is located in the heart of Kensington Market in Toronto, a bohemian melting pot of culinary finds. From time to time, Chris will report back from the area on the obscure, the classics and the downright mysterious.