Ah yes, the exotic, unfamiliar hamburger. Wait, what?
We have a tendency to think about ‘exotic’ foods from distant lands only from our own perspective. Sushi was unimaginably bizarre to the average North American only a few decades ago, but the notion gained a foothold in our collective consciousness and swept the culinary scene. Now sushi is nearly ubiquitous, albeit in a form that has often been modified in some way to suit the Western palate. But this phenomenon is not a one-way street.
When Japan was convinced (or coerced) into opening its doors to the West in 1853, the nation was inundated with new clothes, habits, customs, and of course, foods. Japan had become a more-or-less pescetarian nation by this time, and aspects of Western cuisine (like the consumption of meat and the use of knives at the table) seemed utterly barbaric to its people. But the line between revulsion and curiosity is a very thin one, and yoshoku (Western food) began to catch on. The tide really shifted in 1872, when Emperor Meiji did something that shocked his subjects: he ate meat in public. This might seem inconsequential in our modern era, especially given our politicians’ propensity for seeking out average-joe photo ops in greasy spoons, but when the Emperor did it he was breaking a tradition that had lasted for a thousand years. Japanese attitudes towards Western food and meat began to shift. That same year, Tokyo’s first Western Style Restaurant, Seiyo-ken, opened for business. The popularity of yoshoku grew, and new dishes began to spring from the minds of talented chefs in the capital and elsewhere. In fact, many of the foods that we think of as quintessentially Japanese have roots in imported dishes, katsu, tempura, gyoza, and okonomiyaki to name but a few.
Back to hamburgers. To a nation that had maintained a strict Buddhist edict against meat for a millenium, nothing could be more foreign or exotic than a big piece of seasoned meat. But Japan had little interest in adopting Western foods wholesale – instead, it adapted these new dishes to Japanese tastes. The word wafu means ‘Japanese Style,’ and the it is used to represent a dish that has been transformed with Japanese ingredients and to reflect Japanese tastes (hambagu, as you have probably guessed, is the word hamburger transplanted into the Japanese lexicon). Fortunately for the rest of the world, wafu dishes are perfect examples of just how good fusion cuisine can be. This hamburger patty is a revelation. The combination of pork and beef keeps the burger juicy and flavourful, and the ponzu permeates it to add a salty-sweet, tangy taste to every bite. Even the condiments get in on the act – you can, of course, top your burger with whatever you like, but the fresh, peppery punch of grated daikon, and the hot-sweet mixture of Japanese mustard and mayo partner perfectly with the patty.
As one last added bonus, this meal demonstrates just how easy it is to extend the Japanese pantry and make it part of your regular cooking routine. There’s no reason that you can’t take the ponzu, or the condiments, or the patty itself, and adapt them to any number of meals.
The patty itself is adapted with a few modifications from a recipe found here, at the wonderful Japanese food blog “Just One Cookbook.” I’m a big fan of her recipes, and I encourage you to explore the site.
The key to getting really good flavour from the patty is to use both ground pork and ground beef. Beef alone won’t have the same flavour and it will make a drier hamburger. Beyond that, it’s a super-simple dish to put together. Make sure to make the patties fairly thick. I also recommend that you try to find panko, rather than regular bread crumbs, as the final texture will be better.
You can use a store-bought ponzu sauce, but if you can get kombu and katsuobushi (or a good instant dashi), I strongly recommend you make your own. The taste of homemade ponzu is incomparable, and it’s really easy to make. Check out my recipe here.
Daikon oroshi is a simple, one-ingredient condiment, and a very popular one in Japan. All you need to do is grate daikon (the big, long, white radish, also known lo-bok, luo-bo, mooli, etc.), then squeeze out the juice. There’s a lot of juice in daikon, so you need to grate a fair bit to end up with a nice solid ball of daikon oroshi. In terms of taste, picture a sweet, very peppery radish. If you use the stem-end of the daikon, the flesh tends to be a little sweeter.
As for grating the daikon, if you can get a Japanese oroshigane, you’ll get the best results. That being said, a nice fine-toothed grater or microplane will do a decent job too.
MUSTARD AND MAYO
Most of us have mustard and mayonnaise kicking around, so you’d be forgiven for just using standard Western staples. That being said, I think it’s worth seeking out the Japanese versions. They’re easily found at any Japanese grocery store and most Asian grocery stores, and they do have a distinctive taste. For starters, the mustard (karashi) is distinctly hot – closer to English mustard than sweet American mustard. As for the mayo, I just think that Japanese mayo (aka kewpie mayo) is a superior product. It’s made with egg yolks only, so it’s creamier and richer, and it’s packs a sweet/savoury punch that you really can’t beat.
I didn’t really measure the mixture of the two ingredients – just mix mustard powder into some mayo and taste it to see what balance you like.
I topped my burger with scallions and a little avocado. The avocado is especially nice because it works against the acid bite of the ponzu, but feel free to explore and come up with your own toppings.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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