Friday, July 4, 2008

And the rest is Hamburger History

Hamburgers have become such an integral part of pop culture that we often forget that this food item has been around for yonks... and yonks. And my belief is that anything that has been around for that long deserves a history lesson dedicated to it.
Maybe its also because I recently tasted two very delicious but very different hamburgers in completely different parts of the world that ignited my curiousity for this global dish.

The first of these hamburgers was aptly named "Mr Big Stuff" courtesy of Fergburger(, a hole in the wall burger joint in Queenstown, New Zealand. 1/2lb of New Zealand Prime beef topped with Edam cheese, American streaky bacon & bbq sauce, lettuce, red onion and aioli. This burger was MASSIVE. It was a real struggle to hold it with two hands and a real challenge to eat the mother of a thing - but boy was it good. Two beef patties perfectly sandwiching the thick gooey melted edam cheese. The bbq sauce was tangy with just the right hint of sweetness and the aioli was creamy and garlicky. Beautiful fresh salad (red onion and gourmet lettuce were a nice touch) tried desparately to ease the guilt of the decadent contents of this meal. Incredibly, all of these ingredients managed to be stuffed into a freshly baked burger bun.
12 minutes later and approximately 1/2 pounds heavier, I was a very happy man and felt a sense of achievement for having polished off a darn big meal. Fergburger has a very interesting burger menu, from a tempura tofu burger with a spicy satay, coconut and coriander sauce to a falafel burger dressed in lemon yoghurt and chipotle (named Bun Laden which I kinda cringed at) - this burger joint caters to all burger cravings. Fantastic stuff and definitely highly recommended if you're ever in Queenstown.

Shortly after, I found myself in Kuching, East Malaysia, standing at 12 midnight by a roadside "Ramly Burger" stall. I watched with much interest as the hawker grilled a suspicious looking meat patty (which was not subject to refrigeration despite the 34 degree humid heat) in margarine on a portable hot plate. A thin egg omlette was then fried up in more magarine before the burger was placed in its centre. Lashings of Maggi seasoning and pepper were sprinkled over the patty before the omelette was wrapped around it like a parcel. This was then loaded onto a soft bun, topped with shredded cabbage, sliced cucumber, tomato sauce, chilli sauce and mayonnaise, before being wrapped up in grease proof paper. The Ramly Burger was probably about 1/5th the size of "Mr Big Stuff" - but I've learnt that as far as burgers go - size don't really matter (as long as you make up for it by eating more of them). It was also sloppy - very sloppy. But that made it all the more enjoyable. The burger didn't really taste of meat - as a matter of fact it didn't really taste of anything but lots of condiments - and strangely enough - it was darn good. The maggi seasoning added a nice umami flavour and by the end of the midnight snack (it didn't take very long) - you defintely felt like you could have many more of these messy fellas.
But back to class. Probably around the end of the 12th century, the battle crazy Genghis Khan, sent his men out on a lot of conquering. His men went on horses and often rode for days on end. Consequently, they required food that could be easily eaten with one hand whilst riding (Mr Khan ran a tight ship) and had to be easily transportable on horses. Hence, scrapings of lamb or mutton were placed under the saddle and by meal time, the scrapings became meat patties which had been tenderised by the saddle and the horses' backs. Pretty disturbing I know, particularly since the heavier set men probably had more tender burgers whilst those that had a problem with flatulence... ok - let's not go there.
This form of food proved to be so popular that when Khan's grandkid, Khubilai invaded Moscow, his soldiers brought along the same dish. The Russians discovered something good from the invasion and adopted the saddle tenderised meat as Steak Tartare (Tartars were how the Mongols were referred to).
All very interesting - but the hamburgers that were are more accustomed to today involve the meat patty sandwiched between a bun. Whilst there is ongoing debate about the origin of this form of the burger, one of these claims involves a Charlie Nagreen of Wisconsin, USA in 1885. "Hamburger Charlie" as he was known later in life started his career by selling meatballs in County Fairs. He noticed that his business wasn't doing well and soon realised that it was because his customers found it difficult to eat meatballs whilst strolling in a fair. In a moment of pure genius (or out of sheer frustration), he flattened a meatball and sandwiched it between two slices of bread - and so the Hamburger was born.
Hamburgers are unashamedly iconic. From an indulgent meal in freezing Queenstown to a midnight snack in sweltering Kuching... from strolling at a fair to riding horses to war - this dish has been embraced by millions the world over in its various shapes and forms. It may not be the most glamorous thing to be eating, and it probably almost always isn't very good for you - but hamburgers are a big part of history - and we all love a bit of history.


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