We stumbled on rou jia mo almost by accident. We’d been researching the Shaanxi Folk Custom Culture Restaurant and were warned the menu was only in Chinese, with no pictures, so luckily a few blogs gave some suggestions of what to order. When we asked for “yi ge rou jia mo”, we actually had no idea what was going to be delivered to our table. But thankfully we were experimental that night because what we got started a love affair that will probably last our entire time in China. I think we ended up ordering another two or three of them.
Rou jia mo (肉夹馍; ròu jīa mó) is a Chinese-style hamburger. With a round thin roll, crispy on the outside and a little doughy on the inside, the pocket is cut and stuffed with pork or beef that’s been simmering for hours and hours in star anise, five spice, cinnamon and other spices. The meat is chopped finely (by this stage it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender) and sometimes coriander is added to give a little bit of fresh greenery. The result is an amazing little snack, usually demolished by Dan in under a minute. We’ve tried a few of these delights in Beijing – both at the Shaanxi Folk Culture Custom Restaurant (the owners now know Dan and what he orders there) and also from the Paomo Guan’r restaurant nearby our house.
On a recent visit to Xi’an, in Shaanxi province, we were told to watch out for the good rou jia mo, as that’s where they apparently originated. As Xi’an is known for it’s Muslim cuisine, the rou jia mo there mostly used beef rather than pork. Unfortunately though, we found we were disappointed. One of the ones we asked for the less fatty meat, and we were surprised to see the seller get out raw meat and sauté it in his wok with green peppers and bean shoots – additions we hadn’t ever had before. He added cumin and other spices, and stuffed it in a larger bun. Despite feeling virtuous that we’d eaten the less fatty meat, it was a little tough, and the bread was not warmed. Lesson number one of what makes a great rou jia mo: warm the bread before adding the meat.
The same night we saw people eating what looked like the real deal – smaller buns with meat and wrapped in the ubiquitous half-paper bag they normally come in. We tried it the next day, and while it looked like what we were after, we were also not taken by the taste. The meat was too salty – it tasted like brisket – and the bread was tough and too doughy. Lessons two and three: spice the meat well but don’t oversalt, and use thin mo bread.
Back in Beijing, Dan decided to go back to Paomo Guan’r to try their rou jia mo again, as the first time I’d bought one for him, he’d been very ho-hum about it, perhaps as he was trying to skype his mate in New York. When I asked him later if he liked it he said it wasn’t bad but not amazing. Funnily enough, the next time he tried it, he raved about it. Lesson number four: take the time to enjoy your rou jia mo.
It’s not hard to make a good rou jia mo, although it does take time, and effort. At Paomo Guan’r during lunch and dinner peak times, there are normally three or four cooks in their special mo open kitchen. Some are kneading the mo dough, others shaping it and cooking it, another stuffing the rou jia mo…It’s a very impressive work train. These guys don’t need any lessons from us though. They are doing them perfectly.