Thursday, July 3, 2014

Burger ancestry: Germany, Mongolia...

If you set aside its connection with the World Expo (what isn’t these days in Dubai), tracing the burger’s origin gets rather existential. After all, what makes a burger? Is it the beef? But then what of chicken, vegetarian, tofu and other options? And why is it then called a hamburger? Is it the roundness and brownness of the patties? And shouldn’t the sandwich object if anyone encroaches upon its squareness? Bread, of course, has been around since Neolithic times, 12,000 years ago.

It helps Germany’s case that it can claim the name. Hamburg, of course, is a port town in the north of the country. Etymology tells us the word burger comes from Old High German or Old Norse and was used for castles, later evolving to denote a town. In Pakistan, there is a whole group of people called burgers based on their Westernised lifestyle.

In its present form, most people think of the burger as American and it gets imported to places around the world, along with denim, Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise.

The most ubiquitous burger in the world, McDonald’s helpfully lists its ingredients — 100 per cent beef patty, a regular bun, pasteurised processed cheese, ketchup (another World Expo delight, but more on that later), mustard, pickle and onion and a selection of other ingredients as the food item gets adapted.

The beef with its origins

So does beef mince make a burger? Food historians quibble.

Purists trace the patty back to steak tartare, which comes from Genghis Khan’s Mongol or Tartar horsemen in 1200. Focused on conquering the world, the army subsisted on fast food — long-lasting items that could be consumed without fussy cooking methods. Scrapings of lamb or mutton, formed into flat patties, were one choice. The horsemen liked their meat soft and edible and aided the process by placing the patties under the saddles of their horses. The meat, tenderised between horseback and saddle, would be eaten raw.

The Russians added more macho value by mixing it with raw onion and egg. By the 17th century, the port of Hamburg regularly received steak tartare from Russia. By the 19th century, sailors were spreading more than love around the world and “steak cooked in the Hamburg style”, was being sold in stands along the New York City harbour. Forget the burger; there is even a town called Hamburg in New York state.

Historian Theodora Fitzgibbon in The Food of the Western World, An Encyclopedia of food from North America and Europe writes about “a famous Hamburg beef which was salted and sometimes slightly smoked”. While ideal for a long sea voyage the beef was hard, so it was minced and mixed with breadcrumbs and chopped onion. The resulting patties were known as Hamburg steaks. Later these were even made with fresh meat. Visitors to Germany might recognise the modern version in the frikadelle, often sold on the street and eaten in a sandwich.

American innovation

The American touch on this is the patent on mechanical meat choppers from the early 1800s. One such patent, granted to GA Coffman of Virginia in 1845, lists as Improvement in Machines for Cutting Sausage Meat using a spiral feeder and rotating knives.

This is where the World Expo comes in. At the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904, plain hamburger steak and hamburger steak with onions were first served at a restaurant. Reportedly, a reporter for the New York Tribune wrote from the fair of a new sandwich called a hamburger, “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike”.

Recipes consisting of chopped beef, suet and spices can be found in cookbooks in the English world dating back to the 1700s. One recipe instructs the cook to pound a round steak enough to break the fibre. It is complicated and the next step involves frying minced onions, spreading them over the meat and pounding the mixture again.

Personalising burgers is nothing new. In the 1800s, a chef at the famous Delmonico’s restaurant in New York mixed kidney and bone marrow to the mix, while insisting the beef be fat and sinew-free.

The Delmonico’s burger also has salt, pepper and nutmeg seasoning and is crumb-fried.

This still seems to be true. Most US burger establishments use a differentiator. Wendy’s, for instance, makes their patties square, while Hardees has a thickburger line. Applebee’s serves a bruschetta burger made with Angus beef and mozzarella on focaccia. TGIF offers a dippable French onion burger with caramelised onion and melted Swiss cheese. Bennigan’s burgers come in options such as barbecue cheeseburger served on pitta bread. Johnny Rockets has its smoke house burger. Elevation Burgers does guilt burgers. Fuddruckers says that its burgers are the best. What can we say, there is even Burger Rebels, which does its own thing.

Upscale options

Gourmet burgers made with Angus beef, never-frozen ground meat and other such delicacies have been all the rage the world over.

While Americans may claim it as their own by taking it so seriously, when it travels around the world the concept is tweaked to fit — region-specific options have become de rigueur among multinational chains. Take, for example, the McArabia grilled chicken or kofta variations that come on a pitta base.

Still, the question as to what makes a burger remains unanswered. In New York last year, Keizo Shimamoto even invented the Original Ramen Burger, made with instant noodles instead of bread.

Its origins might be murky, but the future of the burger is bound only by human imagination. 7

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