I have been searching high and low for the past three months for a hamburger. Nothing special mind you, just a plain unsweetened bun with a ground beef patty in the middle. I’m even willing to skip the lettuce and tomato (thought it would be nice) and settle only for ketchup. Sound reasonable, right? After all, hamburgers are well known the world over. All Chinese people know about them, and claim to have eaten them, so how hard could it be to find?
Turns out it is very hard.
The first problem is the word ‘hamburger.’ Turns out, in China, it has a different meaning. I first time we realized the mistake was when we took our Chinese friend out to lunch. She said she wanted a hamburger then pointed to the picture of a chicken sandwich.
“Hamburger?” We said pointing to the picture of a beef burger.
“No, that hamburger,” she said pointing back to the chicken sandwich.
Turns out hamburger in China basically means any western fast food that is served on a bun. KFC, here in China serves hamburgers (aka chicken sandwiches) and McDonalds serves different kinds of hamburgers. (Beef, chicken and fish.) So they don’t have a strong grasp on what an actual hamburger is. (And for the record I don’t consider a McD’s burger to be an actual burger. I’ve had one since being in China and thought it tasted like ketchup covered cardboard.)
The next problem is the meat. Just as Americans don’t like to have bones in their food, Chinese people don’t like to have solid meat. When I ask about this, they tell me they like their meat ‘crunchy’ and the bones are ‘very healthy.’ (Subsequently, it is not considered rude to spit the bones out on the table as you are eating. And notice I said on the table they don’t spit the bones out on a plate, rather directly on the table.)
So ground beef is not a common thing here. After all, how would it stick onto the bones if it was ground up? In fact, the only way you can get ground beef in my area is to go to the meat market very early in the morning, buy a big piece of meat, then explain to the butcher you want the bones cut off and the remaining meat grinded up.
(I’ve heard that to actually get them to cut off the bones and grind up the meat is a challenge even if you speak perfect Chinese because it is an unusual request. Like asking for street food with no MSG. “You sure?” they always ask dubiously.)
I have searched high and low for an actual, real hamburger. In every Western-style restaurant I go to I order the “hamburger,” and still it eludes me. What I get instead is a small piece of flavorless, very fatty meat on a bun. Even if the picture on the menu is of a juicy mouthwatering burger, I always end up with the grey small piece of meat. It’s annoying.
In fact, it’s almost like I’m cursed not to find a burger in my area. We once made a special to trip to nearby Hangzhou, a big city popular with the tourists, on a burger quest. We heard about a place with a decent burger called Reggae Cafe. We went there specially and I sat down and ordered a burger off the English language menu (which in itself was a joy).
I sat and waited. And waited. And waited. About 20 minutes later a very apologetic waiter came over to tell me that the electricity was out and they were unable to cook my hamburger. Would I like something else?
In the past 10 months, despite several attempts, I’ve only had 3 hamburgers (all of which were bought in hostels or tourist restaurants while traveling in southwestern China). Now I’m not trying to complain or be whinny. I love the food here. Really love it. But I was born and raised an American and damn if I donâ€™t love a burger every now and then, and it has been 4 months since my last one.
And since we’re on the subject of food I could really go for an onion bagel with cream cheese right about now as well.
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