Of all the delicious foods found on the streets of Hefei, there is one specific dish that has always occupied a special place in my heart: roujiamo, or Chinese hamburgers.
Roujiamo is not native to Hefei; it was invented in Xi’an, a western city that had long served as the imperial capital of many ancient dynasties and revered by many today as one of the street food centers of China, due to the long list of popular street foods that originated there (roujiamo and liangpi, a cold noodle salad, being some of the most well-known examples). Whether or not the old man with the weathered face and withered hands, who sold roujiamo from a hand-pulled cart, on which he set up a window as a shield, behind which he chopped up hunks of pork belly, scooped out of a giant metal vat slowly simmering on top of a coal burner, on a giant round cutting board that had seen the years of action marked by the innumerable knife marks – whether or not he, as his sign advertised, was “authentic from Xi’an”, I never found out, though his accent was not local.
He set up his cart on the street near the entrance of the Shuguang (“Light of Dawn”) shopping center, near my grandparents’ place. It was a major intersection, formed by Jinzhai Road, a major thoroughfare of Hefei’s, and Jixi Road, surrounded by residential complexes and government buildings, with a university and hospital nearby (no wonder it was the chosen location for the second KFC and McDonald’s in Hefei – more on the significance of that later). He never had to worry about lack of business: every time I was there, there would be a line, and I would impatiently wait as I watched him use a metal hook to fish the mo (more formally known as a baijimo, a type of bun, made with a slightly leavened dough, with a very dense, chewy texture like a bagel, usually sliced into two halves like burger buns in this application) off the inner walls of a tandoori oven, slicing it open (though not the whole way) with a cleaver, roughly chop the great steaming hunks of pork belly long stewed in an aromatic broth called lu (seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, ginger, garlic, scallions, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, and who knows what else) for hours, and, with the same cleaver, scoop up the chopped pieces and shove them into the mo. As a finishing touch, he’d ladle a little bit of the juices of the pork into the mo. If you’d like, he would also add some chopped cilantro, or green chilis, or both. Then, he’d hand it over to you inside a plastic bag, in exchange for 2 kuai (roughly 25 US cents), and repeat the ritual all over again.
It’s not hard to see how this food is so popular: a dense, chewy, slightly charred bun that soaks up the pork juices and stands up as a contrast to the meltingly tender and juicy pieces of pork belly, cut through by the crunch and heat of green chilis and the refreshing cilantro. It is a winning formula for a delicious, filling, and portable meal for the many shoppers, students, and people heading home after a long day of work, looking for a quick dinner. It called out to me as my mom and I would come out of Shuguang shopping center, about to head to my grandparents’ house for dinner, and I would beg to have one of these roujiamo instead of the boring rice porridge that is the usual dinner fare, and gobble it up before we finished the 10-minute walk home. They would tease me about eating something off the street that spoiled my appetite for the “real” dinner, but I don’t care – roujiamo wasn’t just a snack, it wasn’t just dinner; it was my perfect food, and it would soon become a life long obsession.
I did finally manage to try to make roujiamo at home here in the US a couple months ago; the mo was more difficult than I had imagined, as the dough was very hard and required a lot of kneading and resting, though the pork belly itself wasn’t hard at all. I made my mo on a cast iron skillet on low heat to simulate the heating of the tandoori oven to get a light char on both sides, and filled it with chopped pork belly, chopped eggs hard-boiled with the pork belly, cilantro and jalapeños, and, of course, the broth in which I cooked the pork and eggs. It was a modest success, and I can’t wait to try it again.