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I’ve been looking forward to this one. I could eat burgers for three meals a day (and I have), and I’m always interested in new ways to push a basic principle – patty-shaped ground meat served in sandwich-y form.
Gourmet burgers have been a thing for many years now, and this is not the place to list the bizarre-o gimmicky burgers that may be delicious, but are brand new, branding-driven creations (I’ve got my eye on you, ramen burger). Nor is this about ridiculously pricy burgers (including the $5000 Fleur Burger served in Las Vegas).
Instead, we’ll travel around the world to look at burgers, and their cousins in the ground-meat-in-a-patty family, and stick to dishes with tradition and cultural roots beyond the fly-by-night, Instagram-streamlined pop-up trend burgers (we can always save that for another article, as I like those, too).
New Haven, USA: Let’s start at the top, with my hometown special. Burger history books (don’t laugh, they do exist) cite Louis’ Lunch, a tiny brick diner in New Haven, as having “invented” the hamburger. Now, this has always seemed like a stretch to me. I imagine that people have ground up meat, patted it into a patty, and cooked it since before 1900 (and the city of Hamburg has reason to claim having invented hamburgers termed as such, at least etymologically speaking).
But since this was the burger I grew up with, why not believe the legend? There’s seating for maybe 20 people, if you stretch it here, and if you ask for ketchup they squirt you with a fake ketchup bottle (red string shoots out). Sauce is considered an unnecessary pollutant when the meat is so good. Cooked in vertical grills, so the fat drips off, and slapped on toasted white bread with option Cheese Whiz spread, tomato and onion, it doesn’t sound like this should be world class. But, oh, it is.
Brooklyn, New York: Peter Luger’s is among the most famous and oldest steakhouses in the world (opened in 1887), and they needed to figure out what to do with the perfectly good trimmings from all those steaks they served. The answer was to mince them, roll them, and stick them in a bun. Nothing fancy, just the best quality meat.
Hawaii: the local Loco Moco is a sort of deconstructed burger. The hamburger patty is topped with a fried egg, smothered in brown gravy and sits atop a mound of rice. Eating with your hands is tricky (but if you must, then go for it).
Belgium: Mitraillette is not for those counting their calories, nor those on the Atkins diet. A deep-friend meat patty is topped with fries and your choice of sauce, and served on a sliced baguette.
Ex-Yugoslavia: the former Yugoslavia’s burger equivalent is called pleskavica. It differs from a burger in the American sense in that the meat is pounded thin and broad, so thin that it can only really be cooked well done (I know, sorry about that). This is a holdover from when the meat you could reliably get was scarce and not necessarily of the highest quality, so you wanted it cooked all the way through. The result is tasty, but you wind up tasting the sauces more than the meat itself. It is usually topped with raw onions and ajvar, a roasted red pepper spread.
Mexico: burritos don’t count, because the ground meat is not patty-ified, but cemita can be added to our list. A beef milanesa, pounded flat, breaded and fried (a bit like a wiener schnitzel) is topped with cheese, avocado, chile sauce, onion and papalo herbs.
Uruguay: I like when there is a burger-like national dish (that’s my kind of country), and Uruguyan chivito is a highly-photogenic example. Churrasco-grilled beef is the centerpiece of this oozing mountain of a sandwich, with ham, bacon, eggs, olives, tomato, mozzarella and mayo alongside. Sound like overkill? I love overkill!
Queenstown, New Zealand: New Zealand is famous for its lamb, and though this restaurant is young (opened in 2001) it seems to offer the quintessentially New Zealand burger. Fergburger offers Little Lamby, a ground lamb patty with mint jelly. The Australian burger normally has sliced beets on it in lieu of ketchup.
Portugal: the messiest burger on our list, the Francesinha, is a sandwich stuffed with meat, then topped with melted cheese and a whiskey and beer sauce, making it tricky to eat, but worth the sticky fingers.
China: we don’t associate China with burgers, but there’s a sort of burger-like rou jia mo. Mo are wheat flour buns baked in a clay oven, and they can be stuffed with all sorts of goodies. This version has pork mixed with twenty spices. We might also consider baozi, steamed dumplings stuffed with goodies, like candied, barbecue pork (Cha siu bao).
India: turmeric, mustard seed, chile, garlic, tamarind and mint top a deep-friend potato patty, for a vegetarian-friendly specialty called vada pav.
Levant: does falafel count? Probably not, since we’re in the ground meat category, but I did include vada pav. Ground chickpeas are mixed with onion, garlic, parsley, a bit of flour, cumin and coriander, then deep-friend, for a hearty, vegetarian burger substitute.
Iran: Kabab koobideh is one of many variations throughout the Middle East of ground meat rolled (rather than patted into a patty) and grilled, before inserting into flatbread, called sangak, and topping with sauces. There were many options to choose from, but this Iranian one has a particularly fun traditional way of preparing it. You smack the meat into minced submission on a large, flat stone, using a wooden mallet. It’s minced twice for extra fineness.
Malaysia: when is a burger not a burger? When it’s called a burger (Burger Malaysia), but has nothing to do with normal burger-ness. Anchovies marinated in sambal and spices are topped with cucumber slices and served in deep-fried bread, like savoury donuts. Sounds weird, but when in Malaysia…