Roujiamo: Is this Chinese snack the world’s first hamburger?

Jul 16, 2020

Roujiamo is often called a Chinese hamburger. Some even believe it is the world’s first hamburger. But is it really?

Roujiamo 肉夹馍 is often called a “Chinese hamburger.” But instead of a bun, it’s made with flatbread, and instead of ground beef, it’s stuffed with stewed pork belly.

It’s a favorite of Xi’an, a city in northwestern China that was once the capital in ancient times.

“Hamburgers are more dry. I don’t like that dryness. And they just add one piece of meat. We add a whole scoop.”

Yang Chao, roujiamo chef

“Roujiamo is very similar to hamburgers eaten by foreigners,” says Yang Chao, the owner of Qinyu Roujiamo in Xi’an. “Except hamburgers are more dry. I don’t like that dryness.

“And they just add one piece of meat. We add a whole scoop.”

Roujiamo, sometimes called a ”Chinese hamburger,” is a popular snack in northwestern China.
Roujiamo, sometimes called a ”Chinese hamburger,” is a popular snack in northwestern China. / Photo: Shutterstock

Qinyu has been making roujiamo for over 20 years. Every day, the shop churns out about 1,000 orders.

In Chinese, roujiamo translates to meat folded into a bun. The filling is usually pork, though some religious populations, such as Muslims, substitute it with beef.

Piles of meat are stewed overnight with various spices. Yang’s shop uses over 20 different spices to make the stock.

But the thing that makes or breaks a roujiamo is the flatbread.

“It should be delicate, dry, and crispy,” Yang says. “You should be able to eat it plain, too”

To make the flatbread, Yang wakes up early every morning to prepare the dough. He lets it rest for about half an hour to make sure it’s airy enough before he splits the dough into pieces and shapes them into flatbread.

He then bakes the flatbread for eight minutes, splits them in half, and stuffs chopped pork belly in between. The whole process is repeated throughout the day as the roujiamo are made to order.

But is it really the world’s first hamburger?

The roujiamo has allegedly been around for 2,000 years and is sometimes referred to as the world’s first hamburger.

The city where roujiamo was born, Xi’an, is one of the oldest cities in China. Among its most famous sites is the Terracotta Army, built to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, who died in 210 BC.

The Terracotta Army in Xi’an is over 2,000 years old.
The Terracotta Army in Xi’an is over 2,000 years old. / Photo: Shutterstock

But the claim that roujiamo is the world’s first hamburger is flawed because humans have been stuffing meat inside bread all over the world for centuries. It’s hard to pinpoint the first.

(Read more: Searching for the largest tea tree in the world)

One thing people can agree on is that roujiamo is a uniquely Xi’an dish.

“In Xi’an, if you’ve gone a day without roujiamo, it’s like you haven’t eaten at all,” Yang says.

Street food

Credit

Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Patrick Wong

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña